Former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem, and the 1979 treaty between Egypt and Israel, showed "the transformative effect of leadership," said Daniel Kurtzer, who called Sadat "a leader who took a leap of faith into the unknown that ended up transforming a political process into a diplomatic breakthrough." But that breakthrough has since turned to a "cold peace" between the two countries, as very little tourism, business, development or culture have been exchanged between the two countries over the last three decades.
"There's no suggestion of any desire among Egyptian public opinion to have a war with Israel, but there's no suggestion of having a real relationship, either," said Kurtzer, a former ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. While Egypt has shown a strict adherence to its treaty with the Jewish state, Kurtzer also said that there was "a very strong willingness not to engage in normal relations with its neighbor."
Kurtzer spoke recently at the Union League, as part of the Robert A. Fox Lectures on the Middle East, sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. A professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University, Kurtzer is also the co-author of Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East, and served as a foreign-policy adviser to the campaign of President-elect Barack Obama.
What Lies in the Future?
In a lecture titled "Where Is Egypt Headed?," the career diplomat used Sadat's legacy as a prism through which to view Egypt's future. To know where Egypt is headed, Kurtzer posited, "we have to know where it came from."
Prior to 1979, Egypt was the unparalleled leader in the Arab world, as well as in the larger Muslim world, said Kurtzer. But, as a result of the treaty with Israel, Egypt "almost became a pariah" among other Arab states, and Kurtzer said that finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would go a long way toward strengthening the alliance among Israel, Egypt and the United States.
In addition, by 1977, "much of what Sadat was trying to construct in the early '70s was beginning to fall apart," said Kurtzer, citing economic policies that had failed to spur growth and a stabilization of Egyptian society.
Over time, Egypt rebounded — thanks, in part to, American aid devoted to improving infrastructure — and Egypt "went from being a country of blackouts to one that today exports electricity," said Kurtzer.
According to the former ambassador, Egypt today believes the United States has a double standard regarding Palestine, an attitude that has contributed mightily to that cold peace. He also called the country's slow progress toward political liberalization and democratization a primary challenge in the coming years, especially when president Hosni Mubarak's term expires in 2011 and elections are slated.
While Kurtzer declined to hypothesize about Mubarak's possible successors, he predicted the transition would be smooth, but hardly a movement toward democracy.
Kurtzer said that recent constitutional changes in the country will limit the number of candidates who can run in the next election. That doesn't mean there won't be an election, he said, "but it remains to be seen if there will be a real choice."