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U.S. moves cautiously in 'foggy' Mideast

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TEL AVIV -- The U.S. moved quickly this week to consolidate relations with an Egypt ruled by a Muslim Brotherhood and is keeping the door open for the new government to achieve more co-operation with the West in the future.

Following a meeting on Sunday with Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns handed him a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama inviting him to meet during the UN General Assembly in September. Later this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also will meet with Morsi.

Since the ouster of Mubarak last year, both Egypt and the U.S. lost much of their influence in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and several Persian Gulf countries were shocked by Obama's treatment of Mubarak. They doubted the U.S. would still be seen as their protector.

Relations last year became so tense that when Saudi Arabia sent an armoured column to suppress an Iranian-backed uprising in Bahrain, it quietly warned the U.S. that if Washington condemned the Saudi move, Saudi Arabia would break diplomatic relations with the U.S.

It was a shocking warning, but one that proved to be very effective. The U.S. did not condemn the Saudi move and closed its eyes to the Bahraini treatment of its Shiite majority.

Obama's invitation to Morsi to meet in New York is not surprising. Egypt has been a U.S. ally for more than 40 years. It controls the Suez Canal, through which much Persian Gulf oil moves to Europe. The U.S. supports Egypt with $1.5 billion a year, mostly for the military. It might now be shared with the new civil Muslim administration.

This could anger the army, the Copts and some members of the U.S. Congress. But both Obama and Clinton feel they have no choice -- the Islamic regime was democratically elected and they have to co-operate with it.

In order to soften the economic pressures in Egypt, the U.S. is reported to be willing to have the International Monetary Fund grant the new regime a big loan in return for Morsi's commitment to preserve the rights of the Christian Copts and to respect women's rights.

These cautious American moves come at a time when the newly elected Egyptian president has openly challenged the military by ordering Egypt's Islamic-dominated parliament to reconvene. The parliament was dissolved by the military on June 15. The dissolution came just before the presidential elections after a court ruled the election law was unconstitutional in part.

Following this ruling, the military assumed legislative power and limited severely the authority of the presidency. It is still unknown whether the new parliament will reconvene. Some of its members said that they still obey the army's orders -- others, especially the members of the Muslim Brotherhood, will obey Morsi.

Morsi also called for new parliamentary elections to be held within 60 days of approval of a new constitution, which is expected later this year.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which dissolved the parliament, went into emergency meeting to decide how to react to Morsi's challenge. There has been no reaction from the military.

Morsi's decision sharpened the polarization in Egypt between those who support the Muslim Brotherhood and those who fear its intentions.

What is obvious is the Egyptian political scene still lacks real acceptance of the sharing and exchanging of political power. It appears that seeking exclusive power is the main target.

The lack of democratic education still dominates the Egyptian political practice.

Needless to say, Israel is following events with great interest, but also with some fear after these first moves by the new Egypt. For now, at least, the main concern is the security situation in the Gaza Strip and Sinai. Several Israeli teams are studying closely the developments in Egypt and are preparing various options for the future.

No one is predicting a large-scale war, but the forecast for the immediate future is foggy.

Samuel Segev is the Free Press

Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 10, 2012 A7

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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