Many things are up for grabs in this month's Egyptian parliamentary elections: the role of religion, the power of the military, and the emerging shape of Arab democracy. But one thing is not: Cairo's foreign policy. Washington believes that a secular victory would be good for U.S. interests and an Islamist win would be problematic. But no matter which party picks up the most seats in parliament, the new Egypt will be less compliant to U.S. demands and cultivate warmer relations with Iran.
Egypt's spring revolution was largely directed at former President Hosni Mubarak's failed domestic leadership. But Egyptians were fed up with his foreign policies as well. To maintain good ties with the United States and Israel, Mubarak had been reflexively hostile toward Iran and its allies -- Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria. In recent years, his hostility was ever more apparent. According to WikiLeaks cables released in 2010, Mubarak had even said that "Iranian influence was spreading like a cancer from the [Gulf Cooperation Council] to Morocco." He also reportedly gave Israel a green light to conduct its 2008 bombing raids on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It is telling that the Iranian regime named a street in Tehran in honor of the assassin who killed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Egypt's alliance with Washington unnerved the Egyptian public. They felt that their country's standing in the Arab world was slipping, and that Mubarak was to blame. This grievance, however, remained largely hidden from view during the Tahrir Square protests. Demonstrators burned no foreign flags, for example, and they refrained from chants against the United States and Israel. They wanted Mubarak out, and that meant relentlessly harping on domestic issues, such as Egypt's massive unemployment problem, poor educational system, and lack of government services.
But now that the elections are approaching, public debate over Egypt's new role in the world has reached a fever pitch. In interviews during a recent trip to Cairo, activists, experts, and candidates from across the political spectrum agreed that Egypt should seek significantly friendlier relationships with Iran and its allies in order to build influence in the region. A new government in Cairo should also, many said, maintain good ties with Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the United States -- but not at the expense of its partnering with the Iranian regime. "There is no reason for us to have hostilities toward Iran," said Mustafa el-Labbad, the director of the Middle East Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo, "although there are vast differences between us."
Even the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's transitional military government, which is sometimes touted as the player most closely aligned with U.S. interests ultimately agrees. If the population wants a better relationship with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria, the SCAF would be hard-pressed to ignore the sentiment. Of course, friendship with these actors could also be in the SCAF's own interests: By maintaining connections with all major factions in the Middle East, the SCAF, serving as Egypt's government, will increase its own influence in regional politics.
Signs of the council's turn toward Iran were apparent from the revolution's earliest days. One of SCAF's first major acts was to allow Iran to move ships through the Suez Canal -- something it has prohibited since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Tehran reciprocated: The Iranian regime vocally supported the uprising. And soon after Mubarak fell, Iran announced that it had appointed an ambassador to Egypt for the first time since diplomatic ties were cut in 1978. In May, after meetings with high-level Iranian officials, Egypt's foreign minister stated that the country had "opened a new page" with Iran. In August, Iran sent another diplomatic delegation of high-level officials to Cairo to solidify personal ties.
The crux of the matter is that Egyptians again want their country to be the center of the Arab world. They feel it is their due: Egypt is the most populous of the world's 22 Arab-speaking countries; the home of Al-Azhar, the university and mosque complex that is the seat of learning for Sunni Muslims; and the heart and soul of Arab cinema. Even so, they know that when the new political order in the Middle East consolidates, they may be forced to contend with lots of centers of power. The more of these that they are on good terms with, the closer they will be to achieving their goal.
Egypt's yearning for regional influence goes hand in hand with its transforming arrangement with Israel and the United States. Among elites and as well as the general public, animosity toward Israel transcends religion and political affiliations. The September attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo tapped into decades of frustration and desire for a dramatic show of Egyptian society's disdain for Israel. Under Mubarak, Egyptians had expressed their opposition in occasional demonstrations and, when permitted, in the media. Nationwide campaigns erupted against scholars, artists, and other public figures who dared travel to Israel. In the mid-1990s, Egyptians even refused to buy shampoo they believed was produced in Israel because they thought their hair would fall out.
To be sure, Muslim Brotherhood candidates have vowed to maintain ties with Israel, but it is hard to imagine that they -- or any other faction -- will be able to do so while pursuing close relations with Iran. To a lesser extent, the same is true of Cairo's connection to Washington. No Egyptian candidate advocates completely severing ties with Washington -- after all, that would mean relinquishing the $2 billion in annual aid the United States supplies to Egypt. But on the stump, the widespread view is that Washington should have much less say in the affairs of state than it did under Mubarak.