Whoever Wins Egypt's Presidency, the Party is Over for Washington

Whether Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi or former Mubarak official Ahmed Shafiq wins the election, the U.S. will face tougher challenges in Cairo.

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Egyptian presidential candidates Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Morsi. (Reuters).

Over the weekend when it became clear that Egypt's presidential elections would go to a run-off between the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi and former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, some observers were quick to claim that the latter's victory would bring a collective sigh of relief inside the Beltway. This was obviously pure speculation, which means something on Twitter, but it raises an interesting question: Who is better for the United States, Morsi or Shafiq?

Let me caveat by stipulating that the United States is essentially a sideshow here; the most important issue is who will be better for Egypt. That is something for Egyptians to decide on June 16th and 17th. Nevertheless, given Washington's long-term ties to Cairo, American officials and Egypt observers are trying to understand what is in store for U.S.-Egypt relations under either President Morsi or President Shafiq.  Readers of this blog can pretty much guess that I don't think either candidate is "good" for the United States, which means Washington will have to adjust to new Egyptian realities. No one is Hosni Mubarak and while the notion that he did everything the United States wanted is not entirely accurate, he did "understand that Egypt's interests lie with the United States," according to an official who served in George W. Bush's administration.

The Egyptian military has not been terribly happy with its American friends.

Morsi is the more complicated and interesting candidate, but against the backdrop of U.S.-Egypt relations, it's pretty clear that the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate is not likely to embrace the strategic relationship.  The Brothers have run against the Washington-Cairo link since bilateral ties grew stronger in the mid-1970s.  They used the issue to pillory Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak and delegitimize a regime whose legitimacy rested in large part on nationalism. It is important to remember that the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood lie in Hassan al Banna's dismay over foreign -- i.e. Western -- penetration of Egypt, which damaged traditional values. I am not saying that the Brotherhood hasn't changed since the early 1920s when al Banna first arrived in Cairo, but mistrust of the khawaga is part of the organization's DNA. To be sure, the Brotherhood espoused a pan-Islamic message at times, but at a basic level, the Brothers are good nationalists.

Fast forward to the January 25th uprising, which was about dignity and national empowerment, and you understand further why a President Morsi is unlikely to make his first international visit to the United States.  The Brothers were a bit late to the uprising and Morsi needs to court -- as he seems to be doing -- the revolutionaries, liberals, and Lefties who made the uprising possible.  Those folks are not known to be enamored with the United States and U.S. policy in the Middle East.  Indeed, add U.S. support for Israel and the fact that the Brotherhood's previous electoral platforms indicated that U.S.-Egypt ties under Mubarak essentially warped Egyptian foreign policy, and the writing -- in day-glo colors -- is on the wall about the bilateral relationship under Morsi. Some have suggested that Egypt is in such dire straits economically that it will force Morsi to accommodate himself to Washington because Cairo will need U.S. aid and goodwill in order to secure international assistance.  That is probably true and you already see the Brothers trying out logically contorted arguments about the United States and assistance, but given what is at best a deep ambivalence or at worst the profound hostility of Egyptians toward Washington, the relationship is going to change.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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