Thursday, May 18, 2006


Getting Our Money's Worth from Egypt

After reading about the second protest broken up with brutal police tactics is less than a week, I decided to take some time and consider the United States relationship with Egypt. I did a brief survey of some recent testimony before the US Senate Committee on International Relations to see exactly where we are at with Egypt.

In similarity to basically every other government in the Middle East, the United States relationship with Egypt can be characterized as complicated and far from perfect, yet essential to any prospects for lasting stability and political change in the region. Like a couple that has been married for 50 years the US and Egypt seem to realize they need each other, but both come to the mutual conclusion that it doesn’t mean they have to like it. Egypt wants to be treated like a serious power, a major player in a vital part of the world, and accorded the respect a great and ancient civilization deserves. The US for its parts want to see some more “bang” for its foreign assistance “buck” in terms of firm commitments on domestic and regional political reform. Neither side seems completely enamored with the relationship, but a strategic “divorce” would be counter-productive to both countries interests.

Dr Michele Dunne from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace conceded in her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “looking at the balance sheet of Egyptian politics in 2005, there were more positive than negative developments overall”. After looking at the issues that contributed to Ms Dunne’s conclusion I would have to agree. My reservation would be there is little evidence to suggest Egypt has committed a systemic policy of embracing democratization. The evolution towards democratic governance in Egypt seems to be characterized by a series of “two steps forward, one and a half steps back” in terms of progress. Independently minded political and judiciary leaders are still subject to widespread oppression and imprisonment. It seems evident Egypt will only allow a pace a democratization that does not threaten the stability of the current governing regime.

All told, it is my assessment, President Mubarak has actually only dealt with one internal threat to his government, other secular minded, albeit opposition political groups. The threat to the regime posed by Islamic militancy seems to be thriving. The secular minded Mubarak has used the perpetual State of Emergency and extensively centralized executive authority to disperse any credible political opposition and Islamist movements. While these tools have been regrettably effective in suppressing the formation of a credible opposition political base, the President’s tactics have only exacerbated what was once probably a manageable threat from Islamic extremists. The end result of his policies has been the weakening of secular minded civic leadership and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate entity capable of challenging Egypt’s secular political establishment.

The very system of governance the ruling regime wishes to perpetuate is the greatest threat to Egypt realizing its aspirations of remaining a major and influential player in the Middle East.

However, President Mubarak does seem to be doing a good job is rallying domestic support on nationalist lines in opposition to US pressure to reform the government. As is the case in a country such as Iran, in Egypt, while the population may not be content with the current political leadership, they find the idea of foreign sponsored (especially American sponsored) intervention in their domestic politics even less palatable. That is mostly likely why any US influence on improving governance in Egypt will need to be sustained, nuanced and effectively “under the radar”.

I would stress sustained because there seems to be a growing sentiment in the greater Middle East that the United States will eventually tire of its campaign to bring democratic governance to the Middle East. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others have made some tangible recent strides towards improving their quality of governance but those improvements are at risk of becoming arrested due to US distraction in Iraq and Iran. While overtly tying to promise of continued aid to substantial political reform is an unrealistic policy objective for a variety of reasons, for the US to simply let its post 9/11 recommitment to democratic governance drift away would be a significant misstep in the execution of its foreign policy.

Ah, but there in lies the biggest challenge to the US policy of spreading democratic governance in the Middle East. Whether we like it or not, we need some of these corrupt, authoritarian regimes to help us with the problems of the here and now. Whether its securing assistance with securing Palestinian militant cooperation with Israel, or helping with counter-terrorism, as much as the US has many tools at its disposal to influence behavior, those governments also has some leverage of their own!

I’m beginning to tire of m babbling, but you know what that’s probably a good analogy for a discussion of Egyptian and American relations. It is not prefect. It is very complex. Nobody is especially thrilled with the arrangement. But nobody would dream of ever abandoning it. In a lot of ways that parallels my writing.

Ms Dunne had it right when she conceded, “there are more positive developments than negative” in Egypt. If the US and Egypt are really serious about realizing their objectives then this relationship will have to continue.

But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

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