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Phyllis Bennis on Egypt’s new foreign policy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Phyllis Bennis, who works at the Institute for Policy Studies, is also the author of the book Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, now joins us, having just returned from Egypt. So what were your initial impressions?

PHYLLIS BENNIS, DIRECTOR OF NEW INTERNATIONALISM, IPS: It’s an amazing time in Egypt. People are still flying from the impact of the Tahrir Square revolution. They’re convinced that they didn’t know how they did it, and everyone wants to tell you their Tahrir Square, their 18 days in Tahrir Square. Opinion is widely diverse. There’s people who are hopelessly optimistic that this is the beginning of heaven on earth in Egypt, and there are some who are, in my view, way overly pessimistic that things are going to get very bad very soon, and everyone in between. But everyone says it can never go back, it can never go back to what it was, that we’ve changed that. And it was through overcoming fear that everyone targets as what happened.

JAY: One of the things that in all of the excitement and discussion, especially outside of Egypt, we’re still not focusing on the number of people that are still in jail, the protesters that are arrested that are–some have been sentenced, some are just being held, and new people that have been arrested. What is the state of repression now?

BENNIS: It’s a very dangerous time, and there’s more violence still underway. Just in the last few days, there have been clashes that were billed as sectarian clashes between Copts and Muslims.

JAY: Coptic Christians.

BENNIS: Coptic Christians and Salafist Muslims, one of the most extreme branches of Islam. And there certainly was part of it that had to do with sectarian views that have never really gone away in Egypt.

JAY: Just very quickly, we did a bit of a story on this you can look at. There were maybe as many as a dozen people killed. Salafists went after a Coptic church, and there was violence there. And then, apparently, the Salafists also held a memorial for bin Laden where they put his picture up.

BENNIS: But I think it’s important that a lot of people are saying that what looks like sectarian violence is actually linked to forces that are trying to disrupt and discredit and destroy the gains of this revolutionary process. Whether they want to return to the old regime, whether they’re people with ties to the old regime isn’t very clear. But there are a lot of people–and I think it’s important that people recognize there’s an awful lot of people in Egypt that are saying this is not just about sectarian fighting of Copts, Coptic Christians and Salafi Muslims who don’t like each other, who are fighting against each other. There’s other hands at work. And I think this is something that’s going to be very difficult for people in Egypt to work through. But I think they have not by any means given up on this.

JAY: And one of the things that’s important in this that makes it difficult for the democratic and workers movement there is it looks like there’s some kind of deal between the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. At the very least, the Salafists said they’re going to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood.

BENNIS: I don’t think we know yet. I think this is all very early and I think that there’s a lot of changing underway. The Muslim Brotherhood has factions and divides within it, not least a generational divide between the young Turks of the Muslim Brotherhood who from the beginning wanted to be out in Tahrir Square with the protesters. The old guard were the ones saying, oh, not so fast. They were hesitant. They didn’t go out till some days into this revolutionary process. So this is something that’s very much in flux. It’s very changeable. And I think that this is something that Egyptians are struggling for. One of the things that’s so astonishing right now in Egypt: everybody’s at meetings all the time. You know, you call someone, can you meet me; oh, no, I’ve got a meeting. I don’t know what all the meetings are, but I know that everybody is in meetings. They’re trying to sort out what’s their country going to look like.

JAY: Well, one of the meetings you were in is with the new foreign minister. So talk about him, ’cause there does seem to be some signs of a different kind of Egyptian foreign policy.

BENNIS: There are real efforts to craft a very new foreign policy relative to the United States, relative to Israel, relative to the region. The new foreign minister, Nabil el-Araby, is a noted scholar of international law. He used to be the UN ambassador many years ago. And he’s pretty amazing. He has said publicly that his goal is to lift the siege of Gaza. He said explicitly, and he told us this again, that the Palestinians have suffered enough. And he said explicitly: we want to not only make sure that people can come and go through the crossing at Rafah between Egypt and Gaza, but we want to rebuild the actual structures of the crossing to allow for large-scale passage of cement, building materials, flour, all the things that have been denied for so long that have forced the use of these illegal tunnels under the border. And certain things have already started. The border is more open than it used to be. I wasn’t allowed in, but I don’t think that had anything to do with me. I think there was still this power struggle going on. The key thing is there is a power struggle underway. There is a power struggle between the foreign ministry and the military and security agencies that still maintain enormous power. And if we look at what the interests are, it’s a very dangerous moment. The foreign ministry and the government as a whole have every interest in following the interests of the people of Egypt. They want to do what people want them to do so they remain popular. On the question of Gaza, that means open the border. On the question of Israel, it means maintain the Camp David Accords, but by the book–none of this extra stuff that’s been added over the years.

JAY: Like subsidized natural gas.

BENNIS: Like subsidized prices for the natural gas, like agreeing to act as Israel’s surrogate on the Gaza border. None of that’s required by Camp David. They have been very clear and the new foreign minister was very clear they will maintain all agreements that have been signed by Egypt, but they are not going to do this extra stuff.

JAY: The other thing that’s–.

BENNIS: The problem is–well, let me just finish with this one point. The problem is that they face a situation in which the other side, if you will, of this struggle, the military and the security agencies, they’re the ones who largely have control of the $1.3 billion in US aid that comes every year. That doesn’t go mostly to the government; it goes mostly to the military and the security forces. So their interest is in making sure that they don’t anger the United States. That’s where the role of the Obama administration is going to be key. If the Obama administration says that, for example, opening the Gaza crossing is outside the pale, if you do that, you can kiss goodbye that $1.3 billion, there’s going to be hell to pay if the foreign ministry tries to open up the border. That’s what this struggle is about. The US role remains very, very important.

JAY: Well, the other issue that’s going to be a flash point on this is Iran. The foreign ministry has said that they want to normalize and have full diplomatic relations with Iran, and Americans aren’t going to be too happy about that.

BENNIS: There’s a big change underway. Egyptian foreign policy is moving much closer to the Turkish model of foreign-policy. Turkey’s foreign policy over these last several years has been based on the idea of we have no enemies, we want good relations with everyone in the region. What that means is we have good relations with Israel, we want to keep it that way, but we are going to demand apologies and reparations when the Israeli commandos murders nine Turkish citizens on the high seas in a huge crime. It means that we’re going to have normal relations with Iran, we’re going to have trade, whatever. We are not going to make an enemy out of anyone, and we’re not going to privilege anyone. That would be a huge change. But if it happens, it will put Egypt in an incredibly powerful position in the region just at the moment when regional upheaval is happening all around it.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

BENNIS: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.