The Cairo Conundrum
Egypt is the linchpin to America’s Middle East policy—a policy that must make interests reinforce ideals, rather than conflict with them.
That the pursuit of Arab peace came at the expense of Arab democracy is nothing new. Facing growing opposition to the Camp David accords, an increasingly autocratic President Anwar al-Sadat resolved to impose the agreement on the Egyptian public with no effort to build consensus and little public debate. When the agreements were sent to parliament for ratification, only 15 deputies voted no, while 55 simply chose not to show up on the day of the vote. This, apparently, was too much dissent for Sadat, who dissolved parliament and called for new elections.
Jordan, meanwhile, held free and fair parliamentary elections in 1989 for the first time in more than three decades, with Islamist and leftist opposition groups winning a majority of seats. On the eve of the next elections in 1993, King Hussein enacted a new electoral law intended to limit Islamist power at the polls while the United States looked the other way. With talk of a potential peace settlement with Israel, the king needed a pliant parliament. Indeed, one year later, with a significantly smaller opposition presence, parliament ratified the Wadi Araba Treaty with Israel. Jordanian democracy never quite recovered.
In short, the pursuit of peace came to depend on prevailing authoritarian structures. Unless autocracy can be made permanent–and there is little reason to think that it can–this state of affairs is unsustainable. If Obama wishes to repair relationships with Middle Eastern governments, then he may, in the process, alienate the other key constituency he seemed to be speaking to on June 4: the millions of everyday Arabs and Muslims hoping for more freedom and democracy.
These tensions in American policy, long latent, have become apparent. When Clinton took to Egyptian airwaves during her March trip, she told viewers that “[we] want to take our relationship to the next level.” But who was her audience–the Egyptian people or the Egyptian regime? With whom, exactly, should America engage? Usually, governments and publics are not nearly so far apart, but, in the Arab world, where ostensibly secular governments have been tasked with holding the Islamic masses at bay, the gulf is despairingly wide. It is not just a matter of differing visions of the state, but differing visions of the state’s role in the regional system. Many of these governments–in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia–are resolutely “pro-Western,” while their citizens tend to favor greater distance from American policies, and spiritedly support rejectionist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Nor do they seem to have any particular aversion to a nuclear Iran, something their governments–and the United States and Israel–view as an overriding threat.
While the Arab-Israeli conflict stands as the most obvious grievance, it is not the only one and may not even be the most important. A resolution to the conflict would be a powerful signal but, in and of itself, would offer limited immediate benefit to Egyptians, Libyans, or Algerians. A just, regional peace would be good for Egypt more for its likely consequences: It would remove one of the few plausible justifications left for the country’s enormous military budget; the regime could no longer so readily use external threats as a pretext for internal repression; and both Egypt’s leaders and citizens would be forced to focus inward instead of projecting their fears, anger, and hope onto a conflict not of their own making. In other words, peace would be good for Egyptians and other Arabs because it would facilitate internal change, and presumably democratization.
An awareness of this complex interplay between peace and democracy can help us make better choices and balance sometimes competing priorities. But to pit one against the other is a false choice. The basic premise underlying the “realist” view of interests over ideals is that, in pressuring recalcitrant regimes to reform, we will lose their cooperation on Arab-Israeli peace and other critical concerns. This premise is not necessarily correct.
A New Policy Toward Egypt
A deep disconnect remains between the extent of our problems in Egypt and the boldness and imagination of our plans to confront them. In order to dispel growing doubts, the Obama Administration should, as a first step, unequivocally affirm its commitment to supporting Middle East democracy. Strong rhetoric matters, not only for the effect it has on Arab reformers, but the effect it has on us. Rhetoric raises expectations, forcing us at least to consider the prospect of meeting them.
On the plane of policy, the United States should focus on providing incentives to the Egyptian regime to alter its behavior, rather than quixotic efforts to empower weak non-governmental organizations. Increasing assistance to civil society, often treated as a sort of default policy recommendation, is not a substitute for using our close relationship with Egypt, and one of the largest aid packages in the world, to nudge, push, and pressure the regime to take demonstrable steps on political reform. The Administration should reorient its policy toward Egypt around two major policy pillars–“positive conditionality” and Islamist engagement–that would serve to promote substantive reform while avoiding unnecessary confrontation with the regime.
Positive Conditionality Ideally, the disproportionate amount of military assistance given to Egypt–accounting for more than 85 percent of total aid–could be made conditional on political reform. As the cornerstone of American assistance, and the component most valued by the Egyptian government, it represents our most effective point of leverage. However, due to a 10-year agreement signed by Bush, this portion of aid is effectively off-limits for the foreseeable future. Nor is cutting military aid likely to be seen as politically viable. Meanwhile, the amount of economic aid is already, at $200 million, quite low. Slashing it further makes little sense.
A strategy of “positive conditionality” represents a more promising course for American policy, and a model replicable on the regional level. Egypt has already voiced its interest in increased economic assistance. The United States could offer a large package, between $500 and $700 million in additional aid (enough to give it leverage but still be fiscally reasonable), conditioned on meeting a series of explicit, measurable benchmarks on democratization. These benchmarks would be the product of extensive bilateral negotiations. If Egypt failed to meet them, the aid would be withheld and carried over to a reform “endowment” for the next fiscal year, meaning that the more Egypt ignored the requirements in the present, the greater the incentive would be to meet them in the future.
Reform benchmarks would fall under two main categories, opposition rights and free elections, first at the local level, then nationally. Both are foundational elements of the political structure. The former would focus on creating political space for nonviolent groups of any persuasion, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to operate and organize without government interference. The latter would allow political parties to reach the Egyptian electorate through grassroots campaigning at the municipal and governorate level. This would particularly help weak liberal and leftist parties expand membership and promote awareness of their platforms, while offering voters greater choice at the ballot box and preventing the electoral domination of any one political force. The focus on less consequential elections before moving to high-stakes national competition would allow for a more gradual, less threatening transition to true party pluralism.
It could be argued that, with such requirements spelled out in detail, the Egyptian government would forgo the additional aid. But if Obama, in a major policy roll-out, announced to the Egyptian people a coupling of economic assistance and political reform, it would be risky for the Egyptian government to make a public show of refusal. Even if it did, two important purposes would still have been served: demonstrating to Egyptians a newfound seriousness on democracy and spurring the Islamist and secular opposition to action.
Answering the Islamist Question The second policy pillar, under the rubric of Islamist engagement, would serve effectively to resolve America’s long-standing “Islamist dilemma,” reflected in the contradictory impulses of wanting democratic elections but fearing Islamist victories at the polls. Obama should begin with a set of rhetorical clarifications, stating that the United States is not opposed to dealing with Islamist groups, as long as they fulfill the conditions of renouncing violence and committing to the rules of the democratic game. The Administration has already signaled its interest in moving in this direction. Administration officials reportedly pressured the Egyptian government to invite members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc to the Cairo speech. The public-diplomacy benefit was limited, however; the Administration could not actually publicize that it had wanted the Brotherhood to attend, so very few people are aware that it did.
Meanwhile, the Middle East Partnership Initiative continues to place an informal ban on funding Brotherhood-affiliated organizations in Egypt and has not allowed Brotherhood leaders to participate in conferences that receive MEPI funding. As a simple first step to remove such hurdles, Clinton should issue a directive explicitly permitting all State Department employees to meet with and incorporate members of the Brotherhood in their programming.
A public review of American policy toward Islamists would communicate several important messages. It would make clear to the Egyptian people that the United States no longer opposes the participation of the most popular political group in Egypt. To the Egyptian regime, it would demonstrate our renewed seriousness. Mubarak has long warned Americans that they have only two choices, his ruling National Democratic Party or the Muslim Brotherhood, and that we best choose the former. It is time to call his bluff.
Of course, dialogue is a means, not an end. Once enough trust is developed, U.S. officials and the Brotherhood can move from discussing ideas to discussing shared interests. If there are ever free elections in Egypt, Islamists would stand a good chance of winning either a plurality or a majority (even with government rigging, they won well over half of the seats they contested in the 2005 elections). Truly free elections necessarily imply a degree of uncertainty. The rise of Islamists to power could pose risks for American interests. As such, it makes sense to try to influence the Brotherhood’s positions on our strategic concerns–its position on the peace treaty with Israel for example–before it comes to power, rather than afterward, when it will be too late.
At the same time, the United States must be careful to avoid being seen as favoring one party over the other. The key is to allow a diverse range of opposition groups the opportunity to participate fully in the country’s political life. Once blocks to participation are removed–if we are able to persuade the regime to remove them–it will be up to Egyptians to decide their own political course.
In understanding what works and what doesn’t, there is an unfortunately thin history to draw on. With only one real exception–a brief period in 2004 and 2005–the United States has never made a serious effort to support democracy in the Middle East. In reality, beyond rhetoric, symbolic gestures, and relatively small increases in democracy funding, the Bush administration did not do much. Yet, even a relatively small amount of pressure can go a long way. 2005, after all, saw Egypt’s first ever mass-mobilization in support of democracy, with more than 150,000 participating in protests, demonstrations, and campaign rallies. This is a lesson worth taking to heart as the Obama Administration considers its future relationship with the Egyptian regime and the Egyptian people.
Assuming the political will is present, the policy changes outlined above can be implemented immediately. If the Administration takes the initiative on conditionality and Islamist engagement, Egypt’s leaders are likely to express dissatisfaction but little more. When the Bush Administration put pressure on Cairo to reform, Mubarak did not withhold cooperation on key strategic concerns. Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment notes that “if anything, Cairo tried harder to please Washington…in the hope of relieving pressure for political reform.” Counterintuitively, then, democracy promotion, if done carefully and gradually, may actually spur increased Egyptian cooperation on Arab-Israeli peace, counterterrorism, and other interests than would otherwise be the case.
Egypt is an intuitive candidate for a strategic reorientation in U.S. policy–both risky and necessary–that emphasizes engagement not only with Arab regimes, but Arab publics as well. Unlike other countries in the region, Egypt can claim an educated urban population, a degree of political institutionalization, a legacy of parliamentary politics, and an active, occasionally assertive, civil society. As important as the government is, it is not the only constituency worth courting. Dependent on external moral and military support, the state itself, while strong, is vulnerable and sensitive to outside pressure. Considering the regional role it plays–and the potential role it still could play–a thriving and successful Egypt is critical to a thriving, successful Middle East. In this, the neoconservatives were not incorrect, although their country of choice to demonstrate a “ripple effect” was an odd one.
Just as neoconservatives got a lot wrong, progressives, in reaction, have learned some of the wrong lessons for the wrong reasons. Strong democracy rhetoric is not necessarily counterproductive, and there is little reason to think the Middle East is immune to democratic interventions. Pragmatism, the new and rather hollow progressive catch-all term, is not a substitute for well-considered policy. Nor should it obscure deeply held principles and ideals, principles that, sadly, we have so often failed to uphold in the Middle East.
In Egypt, an otherwise promising polity threatens to come apart. Egyptians, along with Arabs and Muslims throughout the region, have demonstrated their desire for substantive political change. It is time we did the same.
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