Two years after the Police Day
demonstrations that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office, Egypt's
political transformation has only just begun. The uncertainty that necessarily
accompanies this change presents particular dilemmas for the United States, for
whom partnership with Egypt has been a bedrock of regional policy for decades.
Bedeviled by uncertainty and mutual mistrust, U.S.-Egyptian ties have been
fraught since the revolution -- and on both sides there are those who say it's
time to cut the cord. Yet these two countries still have many core interests in
common and, as the November 2012 Gaza crisis proved, they can work together effectively
to advance them.
For the United States, Egypt's
revolution presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more robust
and reliable strategic partnership than was ever possible before, based on
mutual interests with a government rooted in the consent of the Egyptian people
and accountable to them. But realizing this opportunity will require an adroit,
long-term approach, one that eschews transactional bargains with specific
Egyptian actors in favor of a consistent commitment to supporting the emergence
of a pluralistic Egyptian political system.
U.S. policy toward Egypt since
the revolution has rested on two pillars: preserving Egyptian-Israeli peace and
the security of their shared border, and trying to support and stabilize a
teetering Egyptian economy. The first has led the U.S. government to keep U.S.
military aid to Egypt and other security ties as unchanged as possible; the
second has led to a diligent if ineffective effort to provide economic
assistance (stymied by poor Egyptian decision making, as well as political and
budgetary dysfunction in Washington).
But like a stool with only two
legs, this strategy is incomplete -- and it will not produce stability in
Egypt. Egypt's crisis continues because its leaders have failed, and continue
to fail, to practice the inclusive politics that are necessary to successfully
make the big decisions facing the country. The United States, which has so far
been too reticent about Egypt's dangerously devolving politics, needs to weigh
in and press President Mohamed Morsi and his party -- as well as other relevant
parties -- to make the necessary accommodations to put Egypt back on the path
to a stable democratic transition.
Some argue that the United
States has little influence over political developments in Egypt today. But
Washington still has a great deal to offer Egypt's aspiring leaders -- and it's
not mostly about aid dollars. Moreover, Egyptians inside and outside government
still care what the U.S. government thinks and does about Egypt. Political
winners and losers are appealing to Washington for support, and condemning U.S.
interference -- sometimes at the same time. If they thought Washington didn't
matter, they would not spend so much time trying to embroil the United States
in their domestic arguments.
This is true for many Egyptian
politicians, but for none so much as the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. Although
they loudly proclaim that their narrow electoral victories are all the
legitimacy they need to rule, that's not how they behave. Privately, they
desperately seek international recognition, and specifically the seal of
approval from Western governments that would bring not only economic assistance
but also a signal of reassurance to investors, business partners, tourists, and
others whose engagement with the new Egypt is absolutely essential to its
success. International recognition plays in domestic politics, too -- Egyptians
may resent the United States, but Egypt's majority, its young people, want the opportunities for
betterment that their parents were denied. And they know that in the 21st
century, this will require Egypt to be tightly connected to the world -- and
bound to the norms and values of democracy, open society, and free trade.
Because Egyptians (and
especially the Brotherhood) do still care what the United States thinks, the
leverage Washington has is probably best deployed as incentives, not as threats
or arm-twisting. Recognition, investment, support in international
organizations, and expressions of partnership all matter, along with aid
But the United States cannot afford to take a shortsighted approach to
Egypt's transition. We cannot know who will come out on top in Egypt's messy
transition; and the U.S. government cannot afford to repeat its pre-revolutionary
mistake of relying on a strong leader to give Washington what it needs and keep
a lid on things at home. Instead, Washington must focus on two interlinked, long-term goals.
The first is building lasting
stability in Egypt -- and the lesson of the Arab Awakening is that stability
will only come through political change. Whatever daunting economic and social
problems they are facing, Egyptians have made clear that they want to solve
those problems through decisions made by a democratic government that treats
them with dignity. The U.S. government should support that goal consistently
and help Egyptian citizens build the legal and political institutions and the
social infrastructure that will help democracy emerge, thrive, and deliver
The second goal is building a
broad coalition in Egypt to support cooperative relations with the United
States. For better or worse, Egypt's foreign policy going forward will be
influenced by its domestic politics. For that reason, it's especially important
that the United States not invest too much in a relationship with any one
Egyptian faction, and not be seen as having taken sides in Egypt's fractious
politics. Rather, U.S. officials must reach across the political spectrum, and
engage broadly with Egyptian society, to explain who they are, what they want,
and what they can offer, and to make the case -- together with those Egyptians
who feel similarly -- for a strong U.S.-Egyptian partnership.
The Muslim Brotherhood's
behavior since it began winning electoral contests during the spring of 2012,
and Morsi's behavior in office, have violated basic expectations for actors in
democratic politics. The Brotherhood's approach to the constitution is a clear
case in point, revealing ambivalence about the principle of legal equality for
all citizens, and a readiness to submit legislation to review by unelected
religious officials -- although they resisted mandatory review as proposed by
Salafi parties. The constitution, drafted largely by Brotherhood and Salafi
representatives and railroaded through a referendum by Morsi, subsumes
individual rights to state authority, is dangerously weak on the rights of
women and girls, and distinguishes harmfully between religions receiving full
recognition and protection, and others that are not considered so deserving.
Most troubling of all, the Brotherhood and Morsi have evidenced a willingness
to condone and cover up the use of violence and torture by party cadres and by
the internal security services against opposition activists and journalists --
shockingly, the same tactics Mubarak used against the Brotherhood and other
opponents of the old regime.
It's true that, with all their
flaws, the Brotherhood won the freest and fairest elections in Egypt's modern
history -- and may win the next elections too. But electoral victory does not
absolve the group of the obligation to adhere to democratic rules and norms --
not if it wants to be recognized, and it most certainly does, as a
democratically legitimate actor in Egypt and on the global stage. This is
Washington's real leverage -- that the Brotherhood-led government wants U.S.
recognition, and seeks U.S. partnership and support. Love it or hate it, there
is simply no substitute for that photo-op in the Oval Office to signal to the world
that you have arrived.
So while the Obama
administration should continue to deal with Egypt's elected leaders, it should
not be afraid to make note of its profound disagreements with them -- indeed,
the United States manages to work with disagreeable leaders all over the world
in pursuit of its interests. But U.S. officials should also make clear that
engagement does not mean endorsement. At the same time, Washington should
support, with all the tools at its disposal, those in Egypt working to hold the
elected government accountable, those supporting and defending human rights,
and those working to build the strong institutions, vibrant civil society, and
pluralistic political system that will ensure the Brotherhood will face real
competition from other voices. That means U.S. diplomatic and financial support
for Egypt's beleaguered civil society must resume immediately.
Until stronger parties
can emerge to challenge the Brotherhood's electoral dominance, and stronger
institutions can check Morsi's executive power, civil society and international
scrutiny are the only means to hold the Brotherhood-led government accountable
to basic democratic norms and to its own political promises. The Obama
administration must not abdicate or downplay its responsibility to play this
The political opposition has
lessons to learn as well, and needs encouragement to learn them. Some call for
a boycott of the parliamentary elections, some for street demonstrations to
force Morsi from office, some for a military coup. Any of these paths would
exacerbate polarization and instability, taking Egypt farther away from a
secure and democratic future.
If both sides continue to
treat their political competition as a zero-sum game, both sides will lose --
and they may take Egypt over the cliff with them. As a balance of payments
crisis drifts closer and closer, fuel and flour shortages mount, and public
discontent boils into the streets where police now carry live ammunition and
torture activists with impunity, worries grow about the impact of this mutual
intransigence on Egypt's basic stability.
The looming crisis demands
dialogue and compromise. The United States must press all the relevant actors
in Egypt toward a pluralistic solution, not engage in wishful thinking about
what will solve the crisis, and not provide top cover for those who are sitting
in the hot seat and avoiding tough decisions. The United States wants to be a
friend to Egypt -- and that means it needs to have enough respect and hope for
friendship with Egypt's leaders to tell them the truth.
President Morsi needs the support of the political
opposition for the tough economic reforms necessary to right the listing
economy and secure desperately needed international assistance. He needs the participation
of the opposition and the public in parliamentary elections if the new
representative body is to act effectively and with authority to pass needed
laws. Given these evident facts, he should express his readiness to amend
electoral laws and procedures to improve confidence and participation in the
process. And he should drop prosecution of politicians, journalists, and others
under Egypt's archaic seditious libel laws.
He needs the young, disaffected Egyptians to end their
protests and invest in the new system -- and that means he must prosecute
abuses and torture by police and his own partisans.
The opposition needs to set aside its fears, bargain for
appropriate assurances of fairness, and participate in the parliamentary
elections to offer Egyptian voters a real choice. Although the Brotherhood's
intentions may be malign, opposition groups cannot expect that they will be the
beneficiaries of the Brotherhood's failures -- especially if they eschew the
spadework of nationwide political organization in favor of urban street
The military, for its part, needs to understand that a
coup d'état would be a disaster for Egypt, for stability, for democracy, and
also for the military itself and for U.S.-Egyptian strategic cooperation. A coup
would almost certainly torpedo the large and longstanding U.S. military aid
package -- already under threat from Washington budget hawks and those
skeptical of Egypt's prospects.
Egypt's transition is still in
an early and uncertain phase. The course of that transition matters deeply to
the United States, and the United States still has significant capacity to
affect the trajectory. Egyptians want a relationship with the United States,
but one based on equality -- rooted in mutual interests and mutual respect.
Egyptians want a government that respects their rights and dignity, that
answers to their priorities and serves at their pleasure. They want secure
borders, safety on their streets, stable neighbors, and peace in their region.
They want their country to lead in the region, and reach out to the world.
Conveniently enough, that is
what Washington wants for them as well. Egypt's leadership and its political
elites will eventually harken to these demands, and learn the art of the deal,
or they will face continued protests and instability and be seen as a failure
in the eyes of Egyptians and the world. The U.S. government should wield its
influence -- rooted in clear principles and interests, and in cooperation with
others -- to support those in Egypt working to build sustainable democracy and
a fruitful partnership with the United States.
Tamara Cofman Wittes is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East
Policy at the Brookings Institution. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary
of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2009 to 2012.
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