W.H. pressed on Egyptian democracy
By Laura Rozen
A bipartisan group of senators and foreign policy analysts is pushing the Obama administration to prepare for the looming end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt by putting a new emphasis on Egyptian political reform and human rights.
The group’s immediate goal is to pressure Mubarak to allow international monitors to observe Egypt’s parliamentary elections in November, but the overall aim is much broader.
“The bottom line is that we are moving into a period of guaranteed instability in Egypt,” said Robert Kagan, a foreign policy scholar with the Brookings Institution who co-founded the Egypt Working Group with Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So the idea [that] we can keep puttering on as if nothing is going to change is a mistake. … What we need now is to move to deliverables.”
The pressure from the academic and political community comes amid widespread expectation that the 82-year-old Mubarak — who reportedly is seriously ill — may soon cede power to his son, Gamal.
And the Obama administration has stepped up talking about respect for democracy, civil liberties and human rights, for example in President Barack Obama’s address to the U.N. General Assembly last week. Obama also touched oncivil liberties when he famously chose Cairo as the place to give his major address to the Muslim world in June 2009.
But Egyptian civil society activists complain the Obama team — like preceding U.S. administrations — has been too muted in its calls for greater democracy and human rights in Egypt. They say the U.S. has placed a greater priority on seeking Egypt’s help to advance fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, as well as Cairo’s lead role in reconciliation negotiations between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas.
But while President Mubarak promises Washington much on these fronts, Egyptian civil society activists contend that he delivers very little.
“We have a feeling that Mubarak has managed to bluff one more [American] administration, as he has done for 28 years,” Egyptian- American sociologist and civil society activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim told POLITICO. “He’s very skillful at portraying himself as the stalwart [Arab partner in the Middle East peace process], and arguing the focus should not be on elections and democracy while he has to attend to other important files — Gaza, the Palestinians, Iran, Syria; on all these [he portrays himself as] the best ally, the lever.”
“Frankly, I have not seen any” sign the Obama administration is pushing Mubarak much on free elections, Ibrahim said. “We hear noise that behind closed doors they do. But that doesn’t really carry much weight.”
U.S. officials bristle at the suggestion that they give short shrift to human rights and democracy concerns in Egypt. Obama raised them with Mubarak during a White House meeting in early September, officials say. The White House also criticized Egypt for renewing a controversial emergencies law last spring under which hundreds of civil society activists have been arrested on national security grounds.
“We want to see free, fair and impartial elections in Egypt,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told journalists Sept. 7.
U.S. pressure has led Egypt to release hundreds of Egyptian civil society activists detained under emergency law in the past several months, Dunne said.
But Kagan and company say the U.S. should be doing much more.
“At various different times — think about the shah of Iran in the late 1970s — the critical thing is what does the U.S. do when there is a crucial turning point,” Kagan said. “Egypt is in that condition now.”
“We don’t have to debate U.S. policy over the past 30 years because the Mubarak era is ending,” said Elliott Abrams, former Middle East adviser to the George W. Bush White House. “The point is, the next government of Egypt has to be a legitimate government for there to be stability in Egypt. How is it going to attain that legitimacy? I would argue that there really is only one way: through elections and respect for human rights.”
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) agree. They have introduced a Senate resolution (S.R. 586) on Egypt that has attracted a dozen co-sponsors, from Minnesota Democrat Al Franken to Arizona Republican Jon Kyl. The nonbinding resolution, which staffers had hoped would move before recess, affirms a strong U.S.-Egypt relationship, while calling for international monitors to observe voting in the November election. It also calls on Egypt to release everyone detained under Egyptian emergency law and to revoke that measure.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in her capacity as chairwoman of the National Democratic Institute, and McCain, as chairman of the International Republican Institute, have written Mubarak asking his government to accept international election monitors.
Some analysts are skeptical of the arguments by Washington’s proponents of democracy in Egypt. They point out the only well-organized political opposition to the Mubarak regime is the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a group that Washington is not likely to find helpful on key issues.
They also note that Washington was blindsided by Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, which the Bush administration had pushed for.
“The Islamists’ path to power would come not because they have such deep support but because they are more disciplined and organized than any other nongovernmental group in the country,” Jon Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.
Middle East analyst Stephen P. Cohen also doubted the Obama administration would or should prioritize democracy promotion in Egypt over its other interests. “They have other things they need to deal with Mubarak about,” Cohen said. “America could suffer from things happening in Egypt. … The most important thing would be if Mubarak is not able to get a successor who believes in what he believes: That would be a disaster for the whole American position in the Middle East,” Cohen said.Top