Sometimes, it seems like the United States is more interested in giving aid to Egypt than Egypt is to receive it. This year, for example, Egypt objected to a $250 million civilian aid package if USAID funded unregistered NGOs. Many human rights groups in the country have trouble receiving official sanction from the Egyptian government and thus require outside support to be effective. So, instead of standing firm, the Obama administration agreed to cut their USAID support, departing from U.S. policy elsewhere in the world and breaking its own law as stipulated under the Brownback Amendment.
This perverse exchange is just one of many accumulating signs that U.S. policy toward Egypt desperately needs change, and soon. Currently, America gives Egypt over $1.3 billion every year in military aid alone, fortifying a cruel dictatorship in the hope that this friendship helps the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, contributes to stability in the Middle East, garners more Arab alliances, and fends off religious extremism. And with Egypt’s upcoming elections and indications that Mubarak may be unlikely to live out the next few years, the benefits of incremental reform are increasing, while the costs of sticking with the status quo remain very high.
There are a host of reasons for the United States to reconsider its policy. Morally, it's clear that Egypt’s three-decade emergency law has engendered a police culture devoid of restraint, as evidenced by the sad case of Khaled Said, a young man who was recently publicly beaten to death by Egyptian police. Such treatment, in varying degrees, is commonplace—and the United States cannot, in good conscience, continue such aid when Egypt refuses to respect fundamental human rights. Washington should make it clear that its sympathies lie with the Egyptian people, especially in this delicate time of transition, when the political environment is being reshaped, and when the public is increasingly demanding a larger voice in policy making. Moreover, American support for Mubarak brands Washington as a fickle and hypocritical champion of democratic principles, and the United States would do well to seize this moment to restore its credibility.
Meanwhile, democratic reform would not be all that harmful to U.S. interests. President Mubarak has successfully sustained the perception that any democratic opening equates to devolution of power to Islamic extremists. But the truth is rather different: The current incarnation of the Muslim Brotherhood is neither fanatical nor self-destructive. It has formally renounced violence, and it sees itself as part of a broader opposition effort in Egypt. The group has formally thrown its weight behind the renowned moderate Mohamed ElBaradei and its electoral platform this year is exclusively concerned with democratic reforms that are supported by a broad coalition of opposition parties, including El Ghad, Wafd, and AlWasat. While freer elections could increase the representation of Muslim Brothers in parliament, they almost certainly would not swamp Egypt's brand of moderate secularism. This year, according to Essam al-Arian, a member of the Brotherhood’s guidance bureau, the Brotherhood plans to field candidates for only 40 percent of the contestable seats—and, highlighting the group's moderation on social issues, 20 to 25 of those nominees will be women.
The belief that reform would bring radical Islamists to power misreads Egyptian society and underestimates the Egyptian people. Unlike the Gazans, who voted for rule by Hamas in 2005, the Egyptian populace has choices between many political parties, and the average Egyptian is not a religious extremist. On the contrary, 70 percent of Egyptians say they are concerned about the global rise of Islamic extremism, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.
From a national security standpoint, too, it turns out that the costs of supporting democracy are fairly low. The Bush administration saw this firsthand in 2005, for example, when it pressured Egypt to hold free and fair elections. To a small extent, the policy worked. The election was far from free and fair, it represented an important step forward. As the first multi-candidate election in Egypt's history, it increased political space for opposition parties from nothing to something, and it opened up the campaign atmosphere more than ever before, while the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was unaffected. As a former administration official explained, “Egypt will continue to make those policy choices based on national interest alone, and not on the United States.” Furthermore, the primary opposition parties and movements in Egypt, in their current statements, demands, and actions, have so far expressed themselves as moderates. Thus, deciding between healthy democratic reform in Egypt and a stable Middle East is a false choice.
Plus, the scope of policy changes required would not actually be that radical. Successful democratic reform is a gradual process. And the Obama administration has already performed some advocacy on behalf of Egypt's democrats, quickly denouncing the government's brutal response to the April 6 protests, its renewal of emergency law, its flawed upper house elections, and the murder of Said. In June, the State Department even released a YouTube video of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Tamara Wittes reaffirming U.S. support for democracy in Egypt—although Wittes’ video has only been viewed 250 times, five of which were by this author.
What is needed instead is an escalation in the profile and priority of our democracy-promotion efforts, and insistence upon modest but important deliverables. Working-level conversations with the Egyptians have been ineffective. The administration should do more and engage the government of Egypt at the highest diplomatic levels to encourage small but real steps toward democratic reform.
In addition, it's clear that United States cannot discontinue aid, but it can leverageit, which would at least align rhetoric with action and improve our image. The White House should ramp up financial assistance to human rights and democracy groups. And, for the upcoming parliamentary elections, it should push for immediately executable changes. Inviting international observers to increase election transparency would be an easy step forward, as would encouraging security forces to keep a distance from polling places, lifting emergency law, and allowing all political parties free campaigning and access to media.
In the longer-run, the United States will have to concern itself with creating a freer environment for political succession. For the presidential election, which is a year away, the scope for reform can expand. In particular, Articles 76, 77, and 88 of the constitution establish high barriers for presidential nomination, remove term limits, ban political rallies, and reduce effective judicial supervision of the election. The United States should support the Egyptian people in their call to amend these.
Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 gave many Egyptians hope. Obama spoke of supporting human rights “everywhere,” and “power through consent, not coercion.” However, in the months following Obama’s landmark address, these priorities were absent from the agenda. Now is a perfect time to redouble efforts, build on the gains made in 2005, and follow up on Cairo. Otherwise, we risk alienating the world’s largest Arab population.
Aroop Mukharji is a former Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and currently a Marshall Scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science.