A Yankee Spring in the Middle East

The United States has earned the thanks of a freer Arab people, but has yet to earn their respect, and for good reason. For over 30 years American taxpayers shelled out over $60 billion in aid to the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt that jailed its opponents and stifled dissent to keep the country aligned with United States’ national interests.

The Arab Spring demolished this cozy relationship. Now many of those opposition figures are the leaders of a new Egypt, including its first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi.

One would think with the overthrow of the American endorsed and underwritten power structure, Egyptians would be shouting “Yankee Go Home” from their roof tops. But they are not. Protests in the last few days have been aimed at a film made in California that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad, an incendiary issue for pious Muslims. None of the protests have dwelled on the decades-old American ties to Mubarak.

Could it be that Egyptians do recognize American help in launching their Arab Spring? I believe they do and instead have offered the United States a second chance to get on the right side of Egyptian history. In fact, there is a Yankee Spring unfolding in the Middle East in tandem with the Arab Spring.

If you accept the thesis of a Yankee Spring then it logically follows that this period is an interregnum during which the future of U.S.-Egyptian relations will be set for decades to come. As Egyptians learn the difficult and fragile art of governing themselves, Americans will have to learn the art of living with a Middle East in which respect and goodwill are earned, not bought. As the new breed of Egyptian leaders learn to navigate between their religious and secular voters, new American policies will have to be crafted to synchronize United States’ vital national interests with a noisy and unpredictable democracy.

And in this transition, America’s relations with Egypt — by far the largest country in the Middle East, and historically the region’s trendsetter — will be critically important.

Which is why calls in the United States Congress to stop the $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt and block $1 billion in debt relief are as shortsighted as the burning of American flags in Cairo. The anti-American actions of a relatively small number of Egyptians who were shown hurling rocks and burning American flags should not be allowed to jeopardize future relations with Egypt.

For a change, instead of being driven by dramatic scenes of the demonstrations, let’s applaud Morsi’s refusal to join Iran in supporting Bashar al Assad’s brutal crackdown in Syria. This action by the Egyptian president swung opinion at the recent Non-Aligned Movement Summit on the issue of Syria against Iran, the Summit’s host, and resulted in a communiqué whose underlying thrust was more aligned with United States and Western interests than those of Iran.

So, when will the United States earn the respect of a freer Arab people? I believe that will only come with time. And it will only come when the newly empowered citizens of Arab lands are convinced that America’s national interests now flow with the tide of the Arab Spring. Or as Morsi, who earned a doctorate from the University of Southern California, told the New York Times,

“Arabs and Americans have a shared objective, each to live free in their own land, accordingly to their customs and values, in a fair and democratic fashion, adding that he hoped for “a harmonious, peaceful coexistence.”

Cooler heads must prevail both in United States and in Egypt to make sure the chances of a long-term Egyptian-American relationship are not nipped in the bud. And to ensure that the Yankee Spring in the Middle East flows and flowers with the Arab Spring.

Arabs will have to work hard to earn their Spring. But so will the United States have to work hard to earn its Spring in the Middle East. So it has been written, let’s hope that so shall it be done.

Sarwar Kashmeri is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. This piece was originally featured in The Huffington Post.

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