The United States has been preparing for varying degrees of anti-Americanism with the election of a new Egyptian president.
But that doesn’t make it any easier to bridge the gaps that almost certainly will exist between the ultimate winner of this election process and a nation seen as the power behind the toppled autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak.
“We have to get our heads around the idea that there are no good things coming out of the Egyptian elections, as far as the United States is concerned,” said Eric Trager, an Egypt expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Instead, this is about flavors of bad.”
Consider recent relations. Since Mubarak ascended to the presidency in 1981, the United States pursued three primary goals through Egypt: Peace with Israel, military cooperation and regional stability.
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Mubarak’s human rights abuses were often overlooked or deemed less important than his role as a moderator in the Middle East. In a new, democratic Egypt, this record was never going to play well with the population as a whole.
So even as the seeming chaos of Egypt’s presidential election appears to calm – 23 candidates originally filed, 13 faces were on the final preliminary ballot and the process has cut that down to the top two – the future of American relations with the new democracy remains uncertain.
The candidates range from the mildly to the wildly anti-American and unfriendly to Israel. Trager notes that the United States must expect some level of hostility toward Israel. Even candidates tied to the Egyptian military, which remains strong and supportive of the Camp David accords that have governed the Israel-Egypt relationship since 1978, could well demand a re-do on what has long been considered sacrosanct.
The military would not allow the accords to be dismissed, but it has long desired a few tweaks.
With the fall of Libya, continuing troubles in Syria, Yemen and Mali, regional stability remains unlikely in the near term.
However, experts note that Egypt has serious problems of its own right now, such as high unemployment and a crippled tourism economy. During the recent voting, McClatchy correspondents in Egypt found a strong desire among many voters for a return to stability. Candidates tied to revolution didn’t fare as well as those seen as part of a strong structure, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the old regime.
Results won’t be official before Tuesday, but it appears the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and former Mubarak Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik will be vying against each other in a runoff.
Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and Ddvelopment at the University of Maryland, said the United States has had little choice but to “stay out, hope for a transparent democratic outcome, then deal with the consequences.“
He said Americans have made approaches to Islamist groups in Egypt, but it’s vital not to appear to be “taking sides or even assuming that a particular outcome is inevitable.”
“Two things are clear, no matter who wins,” Telhami said. “First, Egypt will pursue a foreign policy course that will be far more independent of Washington than in the past. Second, the new president will have every incentive not to rock the boat of foreign policy too much as he will need international cooperation, especially economic, and will need to focus on the home front.”
Julie Taylor, an Egypt expert at RAND Corp., a global non-profit analysis group, said recent history in Egypt, however, shows times of domestic discord to be “the perfect time to address foreign policy issues, to distract attention away from domestic problems.”
She said the Obama administration has wisely taken a wait and see approach. As she noted, “There really wasn’t much we could do.”
She said it was unwise to trust unofficial results. Still, if the top vote getters are being accurately reported, they both could have a negative effect on U.S. relations.
“A clear mandate is important,” she said. But supporters of Shafik are scared by Morsi, and vice versa, meaning both face difficulty in being a unifying force.
And, all experts would agree, a strong future in U.S.-Egypt relations first demands a strong, unified Egypt.