White House spokesman Tommy Vietor on Thursday said U.S. President Barack Obama's remarks that Egypt's new Islamist government was neither an ally nor an enemy of the United States did not represent a shift in the status of U.S.-Egyptian relations. Speaking to Foreign Policy magazine, Vietor said, "I think folks are reading way too much into this. 'Ally' is a legal term of art. We don't have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt like we do with our NATO allies." The magazine also quoted unnamed administration sources that said Obama's comments had not been prearranged or prepared by his staff and that the question was an unanticipated one.
One day earlier, Obama was asked in an interview with Spanish language television channel Telemundo whether his administration considered the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi an ally of the United States. Obama replied, "I don't think that we would consider them an ally but we don't consider them an enemy. They are a new government that is trying to find its way. They were democratically elected."
His spokesman's clarification aside, Obama's remarks are important in that they show that his administration is at the very least uncertain about the intentions of an Egyptian government dominated by the world's oldest and largest Islamist movement. Referring to violence at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Obama said, "I think that we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident," and to how the government would respond to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel. He continued, "So far at least, what we've seen is that in some cases, they've said the right things and taken the right steps. In others, how they've responded to other events may not be aligned with some of our interests so I think it's still a work in progress."
Obama's statements carry immense geopolitical significance. They clearly demonstrate that the United States is in the painful process of adjusting to a reality where it is no longer confident that it can rely on Cairo to support Washington's regional interests. While a Muslim Brotherhood-led government will not actively confront the United States, the Islamist movement's imperatives will push it toward gradually de-aligning Egypt from U.S. interests.
One of the United States' biggest regional interests is sustaining the 1978 Camp David accords that U.S. President Jimmy Carter's administration mediated to establish peace between Israel and Egypt after four wars over three decades. Ever since, Washington has acted as the glue that has held the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty together. Israel cannot afford to see Cairo drifting away from Washington's orbit since that would undermine the very foundations of the peace agreement and with it Israel's national security.
Washington's influence over Cairo has played a significant role in making sure Egypt remains at peace with Israel. Egypt's shift from being a pro-Soviet state under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to a pro-Western state under Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak meant that the United States had neutralized the biggest potential threat to its interests and those of its closest regional ally, Israel. The diplomatic relations Israel has enjoyed with Egypt since 1980 not only removed the security threat posed by the largest Arab state in the region, but Egypt also became a strategic partner to the United States and Israel.
These partnerships helped the Americans and the Israelis manage the conflict with the Palestinians and, more importantly, allowed them to focus on other regional threats. Egypt's geopolitical position in the Arab world is unique. No other state can fill Egypt's role for the United States and Israel, and conversely no other state, even Saudi Arabia with all its oil wealth, can replace Egypt's geopolitical and intellectual leadership of the Arab world.
Should Egypt assert a more independent foreign policy, as Obama appeared to be suggesting in his comments, it has the potential to fundamentally alter the geopolitical configuration of the region.