Egypt’s Next Leader

By Bilal Y. Saab

I am fascinated by the current political debate among Egyptians. There is real freedom of speech in Egypt today, which is so refreshing. But what do Egyptians want? Shibley Telhami and colleagues try to provide answers to this question in this public opinion survey, which they conducted in early May 2012. I encourage you to read its findings. On foreign affairs, the numbers I am most interested in are the 73% of Egyptians supporting presidential candidate Mitt Romney and 25% supporting President Barak Obama (I suspect they see that Obama failed to ease the suffering of Palestinians or pressure Israel to stop building more settlements. Perhaps also that Obama has mishandled the Arab Uprising). And 68% still have a very unfavorable view of the United States. I am actually surprised this number is not higher.

But I would like to focus on another issue in the survey, which is the kind of leader Egyptians want for the future: 35% identified Anwar Sadat, 26% Gamal Abdel Nasser, and 15% Erdogan. So a little more than one-third of those asked picked Anwar Sadat, a former Egyptian president who made the historical move of signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and ending decades of conflict between the two nations. That number is quite remarkable.

So how is that related to arms control? Well, it is, but in an indirect way. If Egyptians want a leader who can be non-dogmatic in foreign policy, who can propose bold initiatives, and who is not afraid of cooperating even with his worst enemies to safeguard national interests and enhance regional security, then that bodes well for the future of arms control in the Middle East. Despite the difficult and uncertain transition Cairo is currently going through, Egypt is still the most important political player in the Arab world, and the foreign policies Cairo formulates, including arms control, have significant implications for regional security. Egypt’s next president may be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (Mursi) or a remnant of the old regime (Shafiq), but parts of Egyptian society (hopefully the majority) long for a leader who is like Sadat. And that counts, here is why.

The assumption is that Egypt’s Islamists, perhaps due to religious and/or ideological convictions, might cancel the peace treaty with Israel, or at least refuse to enter into any cooperative arrangements with the Jewish state on arms control. They might also value weapons of mass destruction programs and strategic weapons systems more than their predecessors. They might also have different threat perceptions as well as understandings of and appreciations for sovereignty, cooperation, and how international relations work. That may be all true, but none of it is inevitable, I guess we will have to wait and see..

But in any case, should Mursi or Shafiq show inflexibility in foreign policy (and particularly on arms control) this is likely to be checked by domestic political contexts and the reality of political costs at home. Specifically, if the public and other political parties inside and outside the government in Cairo desire and call for regional security cooperation (which brings me to the 35% for Sadat), Egypt’s next president may have little choice but to comply. Yet the stronger he becomes politically and the larger his support-base the better he will be able to insulate himself from such domestic costs and enjoy greater autonomy in foreign policy.

I may be over-analyzing this 35% and desperately trying to find even the smallest glimmer of hope regarding the future of arms control in the Middle East. But I do believe that this is a number worth watching simply because the voice of the Egyptian people will matter.

Photo: Mahmus Hams/AFP/Getty Images