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US, EU must adjust political, economic policies toward Egypt

In many senses of the word, the revolution in Egypt is a game-changer. For the United States, its importance is geopolitical and military. For the European Union, the impact may be more about economics.

Egyptian protesters attend Friday prayers in Tahrir Square,

Egyptians have spoken, but how will the West react?

For decades the US and its European allies have supported despots in the Middle East and in North Africa. America maintains a number of key military bases in the region, and the Europeans have been trying to establish closer ties with North Africa for 15 years along the lines of the 1995 Barcelona Declaration (Euro-Mediterranean Partnership on security and economic issues - ed.).

The whole Arab world is of course vastly important to the West. But experts say Egypt is particularly significant.

"I would say that Egypt is leading in the region, and the Americans know it," Mahdouh Habashi, a globalization critic and political activist, told Deutsche Welle. "It has to do with Egypt's geopolitical location. Even Napoleon, when he conquered Egypt in 1798, said ‘Egypt is the most important country in the world.' And of course he was talking in a geopolitical sense."

Egypt was the lynchpin of American Middle East strategy. The Mubarak regime was seen as a guarantor for peace with Israel and access to the Suez Canal as well as an ally in the fight against radical Islamism.

That was the reason that America followed the instability and revolution in Egypt with especially cautious and wary eyes.

"The National Security Council was in permanent session, meeting and analyzing the situation in Egypt every day," Habashi said. "That shows how important the country was in their plans. And ordinary Egyptians at the demonstrations noticed this as well. When they became aware of the reactions world-wide, they said, 'Boy, Mubarak sold us really cheaply. We are somebody.'"

Post-revolutionary governments in Egypt and elsewhere may well begin to demand more in return for cooperating with the West. In particular, they could insist upon a more level playing field between their countries and the US and the EU.

Opportunities and challenges

US warship sails through the Suez Canal

The West has geopolitical interests including access to the Suez Canal

From a European perspective, a more democratic Egypt could dovetail well with the bloc's long-term strategy in the region.

"Since the Barcelona Declaration in 1995, the EU has tried to encourage broader political participation, fairer economic distribution among the populace, legal migration policies and respect for human rights," Sonja Hegazy, an Egypt expert at the Modern Orient Center in Berlin, told Deutsche Welle. "But the EU had no partner to deal with, and the Barcelona process didn't work. But now with a democratically elected government, it may be possible to realize these four goals."

But greater cooperation with Egypt and other countries in the region will also come at a price. One thing the EU may have to change is agricultural policies.

"Everyone who's worked on this for the last 15 years says limits have to be put on the European agricultural lobby," Hegazy said. "If we want to create an exchange based on equality, then there has to be free access to European markets for North African agricultural products."

That would likely not sit well with farmers' lobby groups whose interests are always well-represented in Brussels.

Attitude adjustments

Grain thresher

Countries like Egypt will want an end to European agricultural protectionism

Egyptians who live in Europe are among those calling for a fundamental rethink of how the EU treats societies in the Arab World and North Africa. One of them is Magdi Gawhary, a Middle East expert and author who has spent more than 50 years in Germany.

"The West has to learn how to treat people as equals and how to deal with democracies in so-called Third World countries," Gawhary told Deutsche Welle. "The West has to choose between balancing everyone's interests or suspending the normal rules of the market when it comes to oil. That's what happened now when it's about oil. It's a double standard, and that's why the despots were needed."

Despite spending most of his life in Germany, Gawhary returned to his native land when the protests broke out. He spent 17 days together with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.

"I tried to use my strengths and argue that the West should help Egyptians under the NATO doctrine that energy, resources and transport routes must be secure," Gawhary said. "That applies to the Suez Canal, but they said they weren't interested. And here we see what's so wonderful about this development. It was the Egyptians themselves, and only them, who made it happen."

Politically, economically and in terms of general attitude - these are three areas in which the West is going to have to adapt to the new Egyptian realities.

Author: Bettina Marx (jc)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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