Editor's note: Fawaz A. Gerges, who holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, is on a research trip to the Middle East. His most recent book is "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global."
Fawaz Gerges says the U.S. downplayed the serious political and economic difficulties of Egypt's regime.
(CNN) -- After smiling broadly for the TV cameras and complimenting one another, U.S. President Barack Obama and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak provided little food for thought about what really transpired between them in an Oval Office meeting Tuesday.
Historically, the atmospherics of presidential summits are as important, if not more so than the substance. The Obama-Mubarak get-together is an example of where symbolism trumped political reality.
The American president warmly welcomed his Egyptian counterpart to the White House, his first visit in five years, and praised him as a "leader and a counselor and a friend of the United States."
Mubarak reciprocated by saluting Obama "for all his efforts with regard to the Palestinian issue." He said that Obama's address to the Muslim world from Cairo, Egypt, was "great and fantastic" and removed all concern in Muslim minds that "the U.S. was against Islam."
Beyond the rhetorical hyperbole, there are underlying structural tensions and differences in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship that both camps consciously played down and ignored.
If Mubarak and his close advisers really want to know how the American foreign policy establishment views their regime today, they should closely read the alarming and gloomy reports and analyses written by influential think-tanks, policy-journals, human rights organizations, media outlets, and hearings and testimonies by the United States House of Representatives committee on international relations.
Mubarak is portrayed as the sick man of the Middle East, and Egypt is seen as a country in decline. A near-consensus exists that the Arab world's most populous nation -- 82 million people -- is teetering on the brink of social precipice. These observers warn that if social and political conditions are not improved, Egypt could ultimately become a political liability rather than a strategic asset.
In the last five years Mubarak did not visit Washington, as he used to do annually, because he said he was unhappy with the "'stances" of the Bush administration. Bush earned Mubarak's ire because of his publicly aggressive promotion of democracy and human rights and the turmoil caused by America's invasion and occupation of Iraq which allowed Iran to gain the upper hand there and spread its influence in the region.
Early on, the Obama foreign policy team decided to return U.S.-Egyptian relations to the pre-Bush era -- more emphasis on regional security and stability than on internal political governance and democracy.
In this foreign policy architecture, Egypt performs three important regional functions to Washington: mediating in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, keeping Hamas under control, and counterbalancing Iranian influence in the Arab arena.
The Obama approach is based on an old formula dating back to the late 1970s, one that rewards Cairo -- providing Egypt with $2 billion annually in U.S. foreign aid -- for doing Washington's bidding in a volatile and unstable Middle East.
It is then no wonder that in the White House meeting, Obama and Mubarak spent most of the time discussing ways and means to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions. There appeared to be no breakthrough on either track.
The American president labored hard to lower expectations of a breakthrough on the Palestinian-Israeli front. What Obama diplomatically tried to communicate is that little progress has been achieved so far, and that there is a long way to go. Do not hold your breath for an American peace plan yet.
Despite being urged by human rights groups to seek guarantees from President Mubarak about making measurable progress in the fields of human rights and democracy, Obama did not publicly press his Egyptian counterpart to undertake political reforms.
Speaking following their White House meeting, Obama acknowledged that there "are some areas where we still have disagreements," presumably over political governance. Yet the American president neither mentioned what those disagreements are nor uttered the words "rule of law" and "human rights," in deference to his Egyptian guest.
Disheartened by Obama's embrace of Mubarak, a prominent Egyptian dissident, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, criticized Obama in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal for conducting "old-style foreign policy with Arab tyrants" and urged him to support democracy and the rule of law.
The government-controlled media in Cairo hailed Mubarak's visit as "historic" and said it showed Egypt is a pivotal regional actor, strategically indispensable to Washington. However, the reality is much more complex.
In private, U.S. officials are terribly anxious about the potential for political and social instability in Egypt and the lack of mechanism for succession. They are deeply concerned that President Mubarak, a frail 81 years old and now in his 28th year in power, has repressed legitimate political dissent and turned Egypt, historically the cultural capital of the Arab world, into a weak and declining power plagued by chronic poverty, pervasive corruption and the rise of extremism.
The statistics paint a grim portrait of life for ordinary Egyptians. According to the World Bank's World Development Indicators, 43.9 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. Young people under 30, who represent more than 60 percent of the population, suffer disproportionately and cannot find good jobs or afford marriage, with one in four young Egyptians sitting idle, the United Nations says.
Exacerbating the dire economic situation, Arab regimes, including the Egyptian regime, have allowed the rich to grow richer at the expense of the poor and to flaunt their wealth before the eyes of a population struggling to survive.
According to the United Nations, the proportion of Egyptians living in absolute poverty increased in the first part of the decade, while the economy has been growing at up to 7 percent a year, filling the coffers of a small, wealthy elite.
Growth has not trickled down to the poor majority pressed by high inflation, particularly a 50 percent increase in food prices in recent years. The surge of labor unrest -- according to some estimates, Egypt has seen at least 250 strike actions this year -- is a testament to the gravity of the socioeconomic situation.
The Mubarak regime should not lose sight of the fact that a country's worth and value stem from the strength of its open society and the individual freedoms enjoyed by its citizens. Western leaders, including Americans, respect governments viewed as legitimate and have disdain for illegitimate authority, even those of clients.
Unfortunately, in Egypt the divide between those who govern and the governed has never been wider than it is today. This is a potential recipe for political catastrophe for the Mubarak regime and the Egyptian people alike.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fawaz A. Gerges.