The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

US envoy meets opposition leader

The Egyptian regime has always been weary of opposition forces consulting with foreign powers, especially if that foreign power is the US. The history of the last fifty years in the Middle East, after all, is of Arab states trying to influence each other, infiltrate parties and gain a foothold to spread their particular take on what the Arab nation should look like. Regimes like Saddam Hussein's and Hafez Al Assad's spent generously on cultivating opposition groups in other countries, and the Egyptians and Saudis went through a period of fomenting coups against each other. When it came to the US -- after all the current regime's main patron along with a few Gulf princes -- they are particularly sensitive: after all they stand to lose their livelihood. For this reason, the government has always cracked down very hard on any attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to hold contacts with American diplomats, as was attempted about a year ago (and this is one occasion about which we know about because it also involved European diplomats.)

Which is why the indignation at the meeting between US Ambassador to Egypt David Welch and the head of the irrelevant left-wing party Tagammu is pretty silly. Take a look at this:

Other opposition circles, and especially the Nasserist Party, were furious about the meeting. Nasserist leader Diaaeddin Dawoud said his party strongly condemned El-Said's decision to sit and speak with Welch on behalf of the opposition alliance. "This meeting would have been all right if it had only concerned the Tagammu Party," Dawoud said. He questioned, however, El-Said's decision to agree to the meeting on behalf of the opposition alliance, considering "Welch's tendency to always act like a new High Commissioner in Egypt," and in light of his being "the ambassador of a country whose soldiers are killing Iraqis".

According to Dawoud, "El-Said's meeting with Welch has definitely tarnished the opposition's image."

Nasserist Party Secretary-General Ahmed Hassan even threatened to withdraw from the alliance, and condemned El-Said for choosing not to inform the bloc before agreeing to the meeting with Welch.

Even the NDP was upset. Its Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif told the independent Al-Osbou newspaper that it was unacceptable that coordination among local opposition parties become coordination with "external forces". El-Sherif described El-Said's meeting with Welch as being "dangerous and negative, not only for partisan life, but also for the parties in the opposition alliance".

The NDP secretary-general said that Welch should not act like a high commissioner. "He is just a representative of a foreign country, and must not exceed that limit."

I can understand the other opposition being jealous or even genuinely indignant, since they generally have a strong stance against American policy in the region. But for the head of the regime's own party to object is laughable. The regime is itself America's biggest client! And his veiled threats about the meeting being "dangerous and negative, not only for partisan life, but also for the parties in the opposition alliance" is distasteful. All it shows is the insecurity Egyptians feel, across political lines, about being an American client state -- the fact that the US ambassador really does have an influence akin to the British High Commissioner. Most of the time, they deny that reality.

(I should clarify that I don't think the US directly controls Egypt, but simply that it is a if not the major player in Egypt, in a macro sense. The reality is one of negotiation, maneuvering and opportunism.)