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.
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.
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