How new is Egypt’s “new” foreign policy?
Hosni Mubarak the Egyptian President meeting with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Washington on August 18, 1982.
June 9th, 2011
05:49 PM ET

How new is Egypt’s “new” foreign policy?

Editor's Note: Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation.  You can read more from Barak Barfi at Project Syndicate and be sure to check it out on Facebook and Twitter.

By Barak Barfi

CAIRO – In the months since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, his successors have signaled a shift in foreign policy by reaching out to former adversaries.

Egypt’s government has welcomed Iranian diplomats and embraced the Palestinian group Hamas. Many interpret such moves as clear evidence of Egypt’s desire for a diplomacy that is not subordinate to American interests.

But Mubarak never entirely fit his detractors’ portrayal of him as an American lackey. In fact, Mubarak’s need to please his Saudi Arabian benefactors, not the United States, was paramount in his thinking. Although he sometimes supported American policies, Mubarak frequently rebuffed the U.S. when its positions did not align with his own.

Since the end of the October 1973 war, Arab-Israeli peace has been a cornerstone of America’s Middle East agenda. The U.S. often looked to Egypt, the most important and influential Arab country, to play a leading role in promoting this goal. And, when it suited him, Mubarak played his part. When the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat humiliated Mubarak before the U.S. Secretary of State and the international media by refusing to sign an annex to an Israeli-Palestinian accord brokered in Cairo, Mubarak told him, “Sign it, you son of a dog!”

On the other hand, when Arab public opinion opposed Palestinian concessions, Mubarak remained aloof from U.S. peace initiatives. For example, in 1996, he declined President Bill Clinton’s invitation to come to Washington, along with Arafat and the leaders of Israel and Jordan, to settle a bout of Palestinian violence. And when Clinton asked Mubarak to pressure Arafat to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal during negotiations at Camp David in 2000, he refused.

Mubarak had a rocky relationship with Israel, and held America’s closest Middle East ally at arm’s length throughout his presidency.

For almost ten of his 30 years in office, Egypt had no ambassador in Tel Aviv. Mubarak never made an official state visit to Israel, and he frequently refused Israeli prime ministers’ requests to come to Cairo.

When the U.S. sought to extend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1994, Mubarak mobilized the Arab world against the initiative, because Israel refused to sign the NPT.

Instead, Mubarak’s relationship with the Saudis usually determined his foreign policy. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and threatened to attack Saudi Arabia, Mubarak quickly dispatched troops to defend the kingdom. He was keen to support the Saudis and their Persian Gulf allies, who provided him with a steady flow of aid and an outlet for surplus Egyptian labor.

Though Mubarak’s opposition to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991 happened to align with U.S. policy, he was unwilling to back other American campaigns against Arab leaders.

When President Ronald Reagan’s deputy national security adviser, John Poindexter, asked Mubarak to launch a joint U.S.-Egyptian attack against Libya in 1985, the Egyptian president scolded his visitor, saying, “Look, Admiral, when we decide to attack Libya, it will be our decision and on our timetable.”

Mubarak again refused to acquiesce in U.S. plans to isolate Libya in the 1990’s for its involvement in the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Instead of ostracizing Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi, Mubarak welcomed him to Cairo.

After the United Nations imposed an international flight ban against Libya in 1992, its land crossings with Egypt proved crucial to Libya’s economy (and possibly Gadhafi's political survival). Libya withstood the sanctions in part by importing food and oil infrastructure supplies via Egypt, and by exporting petroleum and steel with Mubarak’s help.

In fact, Mubarak’s Libya policy was driven largely by economic and security concerns, and rarely took U.S. interests into consideration. More than one million Egyptians worked in Libya, which was also a large export market. And Gadhafi was eager to help Mubarak subdue Islamist threats to the Egyptian regime. Unlike neighboring Sudan, which harbored Egyptian radicals, like Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who were bent on destabilizing the country, Libya turned them over to Mubarak.

While Gadhafi delivered terrorists to Mubarak, the Egyptian president declined American requests to do the same. After Palestinians in 1985 hijacked the Italian ship Achille Lauro, killed an American, and berthed in Egypt, the U.S. asked Mubarak to extradite them. But Mubarak refused, saying that Secretary of State George Shultz was “crazy” if he believed that Egypt would betray the Palestinian cause.

Egypt’s new leaders have inherited Mubarak’s dilemma – how to realize the country’s aspiration to lead the Arab world without angering its Saudi benefactors.

For this reason, the Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement will yield more photo opportunities than tangible results.

On opposite sides of religious and ethnic divides, a close bilateral relationship would seem unlikely under even the best circumstances. And, with Egypt in need of massive financial aid to offset the economic losses caused by its February revolution, its leaders can ill afford to alienate the Saudis, who view Iran, not Israel, as the gravest threat to regional stability.

Egypt is entering a new era. But the radical policy upheavals predicted by analysts will prove to be small tremors. Saudi interests will continue to weigh heavily on Egyptian foreign policy. And that, above all, means preserving the status quo.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Barak Barfi. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011. For more from Barak Barfi, visit Project Syndicate.

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Mubarak belongs to the older generation of leaders in the Arab world. Keeping Israel and the U.S. at arm's lenght and showing Gaddafi and the Saudis that they could always rely on him, he proved himself very shrewd and pragmatic in foreign affairs. They are no doubt mourning the loss of a reliable ally. The Saudis will definitely give the new government in Cairo a helping hand. Yet we don't know whether the new generation of Egyptians would be too proud to accept the handouts and settle for playing the second fiddle. Their self-assertiveness could be a thorn in the Saudis side.

    June 9, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Reply
    • traveller

      Correct me if I'm wrong, but we're talking about the same Mubarek who hung on to power for 30 years, starved, tortured & killed his people, robbed them blind & killed Gazans, while he inadvertently forgot to run of Israeli elections right?! LoL
      This Barak Barfi guy who just so happens to be a research fellow at the America Foundation which, in turn, just so happens to be in Washington DC LoL, is telling us that Mubarek was the best thing that ever happened to ungrateful people of Egypt & the Muslims as well as the Arab world LoL.
      I mean heck, the Egyptians might as well reinstate him promptly & honour him for his pious qualities & integrity too. What a jip!!!
      New Egypt doesn't have to depend on the non Muslim Saudi family of K9's for cash flow or the West/U.S.
      All they have to do is simply use their brains which as far as I know the country is loaded with.
      Someone I know already submitted an alternative plan to the parties concerned in the new Egyptian government to review & dicide upon.
      But let us quickly humour the author of the article & call things what they are shall we;
      Since the Saudis are indeed U.S puppets, & if Egypt was & would in the future answer to, & accomodate the Saudis, doesn't that equate to Egypt answering to, & accomodating the U.S?!

      June 13, 2011 at 11:47 am | Reply
  2. Onesmallvoice

    I see a picture of Hitler and Mussolini reincarnated above in the persons of Reagan and Mubarak except that Mubarak never did anything for the people of Egypt. On the other hand, Mussolini did a lot for the Italians as he led them out of a most severe depression after WW1 and brought the Italian Mafia to it's knees. And Ronald Reagan couldn't be more like Hitler even if he tried to be with all that right-wing hatred eating at him,but then again,I guess that he got that from his wife Nancy.

    June 9, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      As a matter of fact, there is a lot in common between two such pictures. Both are black an white. Both depict middle- aged men in official suits talking while sitting at a coffee table. Both are pictures of two state leaders... There is nothing in common between the policies of the leaders depicted in these two pictures. While the first two were interested in building their empires through aggressive wars the latter two wanted peace and prosperity for their people and for the rest of the world.

      June 10, 2011 at 5:40 am | Reply
      • Onesmallvoice

        Nothing could be further from the truth,Thinker23. Reagan and Mubarak were in no way less evil than Hitler and Mussolini and while Reagan wanted to build his empire at the expense f the Russians, Mubarak wanted to sit back and rule with an iron hand while ignoring the plight of the people there no matter how miserable they were!

        June 10, 2011 at 11:44 am |
      • Thinker23

        Onesmallvoice: Nothing could be further from the truth...

        If you believe that this is the case WHAT prevented you from listing all the aggressive wars US and Egypt started under Reagan and Mubarak respectively to build American and Egyptian empires? I'm all ears...

        June 10, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
      • Thinker23

        I feel like a cat trying to play with the mouse it just caught. The cat wants to play but the mouse closes its eyes and does not move pretending to be dead and hoping that the cat will go away...

        Why are you pretending to be dead, Onesmallvoice? You don't want to play? It's so disappointing...

        June 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  3. SarahPalin

    Reagan is my hero. He put the con in conservative. He gave tax breaks to the rich republicans like me. And he also conned the religious to vote republican. Religious right............that's an oxymoron (or maybe just remove the oxy part). So many low life idiots vote for people like me and we don't even represent them. he he he he.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Reply
  4. Odysseus Writes

    European Nuclear plant In Egypt Under pyramids...and if Allah won't behave Properly Europe will make it blow

    June 10, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
  5. Aunti propagandist

    Well, now that we all know Fareed is simply a mouth piece or organ of the left wing white house, it does not surprise me to hear him pushing this ridiculous infrastructure bank idea. Fareed, here is one simple question. What happened to the trillions of dollars that our grand leader said was going to be spent on infrastructure projects. A lot of this money ended up in Obama's personal political slush fund, which was used to pay off his big union supporters and other left wing support groups.
    Now you come whining about the infrastructure. Give me a break!!!!!!

    June 12, 2011 at 10:14 am | Reply
  6. Rafael

    Fareed, Fareed, please, please, please......................YOU CHEAPENED the intellectual value of your round table by having Ann Coulther on the panel................she is not an effectual thinker, she is way, way, way too biased by Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck.....................DON'T DO THAT AGAIN, PLEASE !!!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  7. Rafael

    AUNTI PROPAGANDIST the money went to the super rich Wall street bankers which are not helping the American public.
    Some of the money went to help the Automobile Industry and it SAVED IT FROM DESTRUCTION. All that was done was help it out, just as a bank helps out anybody who needs and has good credit, not a bailout if it was paid back with interest !!!

    June 12, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  8. Rafael

    FAREED, YOUR PROGRAM IS ONE OF THE VERY, VERY FEW PROGRAMS THAT HAS OBJECTIVE THINKING, don't bring on these kooks like Ann Coulther, I am surprised you slimed the program with her presence.

    June 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Reply

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