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Egypt’s Presidential vote: US picks its favorite



The upcoming presidential elections could determine Egypt’s future political positioning in a volatile region. Major world powers including the US are monitoring developments with great interest.

It has become clear that the intensification of the presidential election contest in Egypt is not only due to rivalries between the domestic political forces competing over the top job in the country.

Many issues are also at stake at the strategic level, including Egypt’s future regional role and its policy on key issues. These are deemed vital by various players both inside and outside the country, notably the US and Israel, whose policies in the region have been inextricably linked for decades.

Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, which raised the banner of anti-imperialist national liberation struggle and resistance to Zionism, turned Cairo into a regional superpower that wielded formidable influence throughout the Arab world.

Anwar al-Sadat’s Egypt, which aligned itself with the US and made peace with Israel, was isolated and ostracized by the Arab and Islamic world.

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, which so aligned itself with Israel that its president became Zionism’s “strategic treasure”, turned in on itself. Its aspirations were confined to sustaining the regime, which the masses brought down in Tahrir Square.

What will tomorrow’s Egypt be like? Which of these models will it adopt? The behaviour of the military establishment will doubtless be important in this regard. Egypt’s economic needs are also a factor that cannot be ignored. But the decisive say will be with the political authority that finally emerges from the belly of the active popular forces that brought down the previous regime.

The forthcoming presidential elections have become the principal arena in which this battle is being fought. Virtually every regional and international power with a stake in the outcome has been exerting whatever influence it can in a bid to secure victory for the candidate it thinks most attuned to its interests.

The major player in this regard may be the US, given its long-established relations in Egypt - with the former regime, the military, and civil society alike - and the enormous influence it wields over the regional actors who are involved in this game.

Regarding this issue, Arab diplomatic sources point to a report that was prepared by US intelligence agencies for the Obama administration, and passed on by the State Department to a number of regional governments. The document both assesses the Egyptian presidential election campaign and makes recommendations for US policy and actions.

The report acknowledges that there is widespread public feeling that Egypt has hitherto been prevented from playing its natural role in the Arab and Islamic world, and that it should take a stronger stand against the US and Israel. It sees the spate of bombings of the pipeline supplying Egyptian natural gas to Israel as a manifestation of this, and warns that it might eventually result in the abrogation of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

Accordingly, the report argues that the Muslim Brotherhood should be prevented from winning the presidential elections by all means – including by aggravating rivalries with other Islamist groups, including the Salafis and al-Qaeda sympathizers. The diplomatic sources suggested that the recent violent clashes at the defense ministry headquarters may have been an early manifestation of this.

The report recommends that the US support the candidacy either of Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general, or ex-premier Ahmad Shafiq. The diplomatic sources, however, said that the Americans are aware that Shafiq lacks the charisma, popularity and legitimacy needed to stand any chance of winning, and are in practice backing Moussa. They said a team of British intelligence operatives had been formed to covertly support his candidacy.

The sources stressed that this does not mean this team is working with Moussa, or that he approves or is even aware of it. Yet he remains Washington’s preferred choice because it believes that while he may talk tough on Egypt’s role, Arab solidarity and Palestine, he will not have the power to carry out any promises he makes.

According to the sources , the report adds that if victory cannot be secured for Moussa or Shafiq, the preferred alternative candidate would be independent Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh. It reasons that as he broke off from the Brotherhood, he lacks the mass social base he would need to restore Egypt’s leading regional role, and his victory would also undermine the Brotherhood’s public standing generally. The sources suggest that the disqualification of the Brotherhood’s original candidate, Khayrat el-Shater, may have been the first step towards realizing this scenario.

Although the Brotherhood has kept a low public profile concerning Israel and the peace treaty, the Americans still worry about it, on the grounds that it is the only political force with enough of a mass base and sufficient historical and religious legitimacy to lead Egypt on to a new course in foreign policy. Its traditionally anti-imperialist approach and record of support for the Palestinian cause give it much in common with the Iran’s Khomeinist Islamists in this regard.

“The American priority is, therefore, firstly to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from reaching the presidency, because they carry these characteristics and these ideological genes, and secondly to undermine the appeal of the broader Islamic project, assisted by the weakness of the Brotherhood’s own stands,” the sources said.

These sources also said there were signs that movements were afoot within Egypt to encourage the three Islamist presidential candidates to join forces with Nasserist hopeful Hamdeen Sabahi and rally their supporters behind a single agreed nominee. The aim would be to ensure that a supporter of the Islamist/ Arab nationalist project made it through the first round, thus enabling the country’s two largest popular forces to make their influence felt in determining Egypt’s future place on the region’s geostrategic map.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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