The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Burns in Cairo

This afternoon the US embassy held a short briefing and Q&A session by US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, William Burns, who is in Cairo for a three-day visit. Present were a small group of Egyptian print and online journalists and yours truly, representing this website, as well as Embassy officials includingAmbassador Margaret Scobey, who did not speak. It's the only press availability Burns will be having, Embassy officials said.

Let me first say, for what it's worth, that I've met Burns before and I've always found him extremely affable — just one of these personalities that does not appear arrogant or abrasive, which isn't always the case in the world of high-level diplomacy. It certainly helps pass a positive message of US policy. We didn't get to ask a lot of questions, and the meeting was centered on Egypt. Naturally, Libya came up, and Burns answered a journalist's question about the impression given that the US does not care about what's happening there. Burns basically said that's not the case, pointed to Secretary Clinton's remarks yesterday, and simply noted that the matter was now in the hands of the Security Council.

The rest of the meeting was about Egypt. He noted that this was "a moment of extraordinary promise and extraordinary challenge for Egypt and Egyptians" and noted the "courage and tremendous peaceful determination of the Egyptian people." He said the "road ahead will not be easy and we know this is just the beginnning of a complicated democratic transition and know also it's a transition that can only be navigated by Egyptians themselves." He noted Obama emphasized that "Egypt's transition needs to be open and inclusive" and yield "real political change." The US is committed to the long-term partnership with Egypt, "particularly at this moment of profound change throughout the Arab world." Another strong statement was "I don't think the partnership between our two countries and our two peoples has ever been as important as it is today" — a statement indicative of support for Egypt and a continuing bilateral alliance, but also perhaps of concern?

Burns stressed the economy side of things — both in terms of what Egyptian officials have highlighted as their priorities, but perhaps also (if very subtly) touching on US concerns about the Egyptian economy. He talked about "increasing economic opportunities," "modernizing the Egyptian economy" and of course providing support during the transition. "It seems to us that the top long-term priority has to be economic modernization, and that the benefits of it has to be felt across society, not just at the top." It was not explicitly laid out, but I sensed a degree of concern about the liberal economic reforms that the US has long supported and where they might go at a time when two of the new cabinet ministers are basically Marxist economists. That being said, there was also a sense of confidence that Egypt will recover fairly swiftly and continue to attract tourists and investors. (This is a bit of a tangent, but I suspect these revolutions will lead to a wider rethinking of the type of economic reform the US has pushed in Egypt and elsewhere over the past two decades, which was very informed by the rise of supply-siders in the 1980s, Reagonomics, the Clintonian re-adjustment of Democratic economic thinking, as well as concepts like aid-to-trade and public-private partnerships. That being said, there is a huge industry with vested interests in promoting these views.)

He was also very cautious not to indicate that the US was not interested in imposing outcomes, although there are transition models to choose from and that it was important to include as wide a possible a representation of society so one feels left out. "That it seems to me is at the top of priorities."

On Egypt's foreign relations, Burns noted a continuing central role for Egypt in the Middle East peace process and a shared commitment to "a truly just Israeli-Palestinian peace." He noted that Egypt's military council asserted commitment to peace treaty with Israel. On Iran, he said Egyptians have "not been shy" about expressing concerns with Iran's nuclear program and its support for groups like Hizbullah. From what he said, one sensed that the Supreme Military Council was telling him it'd be business as usual on those two issues the US cares most about for now regionally. It may simply to too early to see a development of Egyptian policy towards Iran, Gaza, Israel, etc.

Other issues: 

  • Burns said no request had been received from the Egyptian government about freezing the assets of any Mubarak family member.
  • Asked about the Brotherhood, Burns was evasive — said the US will meet with anyone, but did not meet with MB on this trip. Emphasized need for system that allows for "equal rights and fair competition." Would not comment now on how US would deal with MB if it won elections, rather focus on process leading to elections.
  • He skirted a question about aid to Egypt being made conditional on actual progress, but noted "this is an area where we have not always been as clear as we should be" — "It's very important for Americans to understand that stability is not a static phenomenon. Leaderships that don't address the participation of their people are going to have a very hard time to be stable."

To conclude, I don't think Burns said anything earth-shattering — diplomats rarely do — but I picked up a sense of concern about the economy and its direction, about widening the political spectrum (which may be in part about the MB), confidence of continued close strategic relations (with the military leadership at least). There was a question I'd wanted to ask that I discussed this morning by my friend Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) how has been crashing at my place for the last few days: what does this pan-Arab crisis mean in the long term for the way the US elaborates its Middle East policy, particularly because most existing polciies are developed bilaterally rather than regionally — hence different takes on Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, etc. Should there be one standard for all these countries? As I told Andrew, realpolitik would dictate an individual approach to each state. But the US has moral ambitions (many would call them pretentions) and is restricted in what it can do by public opinion. We've seen in the last few days wildly different takes on Iran and Bahrain. A coherent, Middle East wide approach is going to be a long time in coming, as I see it.