- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Under Secretary of Defense.
With Ukraine and Boko Haram are dominating the headlines, and Syria still commanding attention, the Egyptian presidential election, scheduled for May 26 and 27, has been relegated to the inside pages of the mainstream press. But this election is crucial not only for Egypt, but for the Middle East as a whole. Despite the stagnation of the last years of the Mubarak era, and the turmoil that has wracked the country ever since, Egypt remains the Arab world’s center of gravity: It is its cultural center, its most populous state, and the key to any region-wide peace with Israel.
There has been much carping in various American and European circles about the current Egyptian government’s crushing of the Islamist opposition. There has been rising criticism, too, of the electoral process that most observers agree will most likely result in the overwhelming victory of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, previously the chief of staff and defense minister, and a leader in the overthrow of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. That the Islamists proved beyond doubt once in office that their version of democracy was effectively "one man, one vote, one time" has been conveniently forgotten. The focus instead has been on the fact that once again Egypt likely will be led by a general, with images of Gamal Abdel Nasser — who was actually a Colonel — and of course onetime Air Chief Marshal Hosni Mubarak constantly brought to the fore.
This hand wringing, however, is the wrong reaction. Washington in particular should view the elections as an opportunity to remedy its missteps over the last few years, when it managed to alienate all sides of the Egyptian political divide. Indeed, it can reinvigorate its relationship with a long-standing and reliable ally whose strategic importance to the United States has remained as critical as ever.
Ever since the Camp David agreements, Egypt has ensured that there would not be region-wide wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It has kept the Suez Canal open both to merchant vessels and warships as large as aircraft carriers. It has consistently granted overflight rights to American military aircraft. It has been a major partner in the battle against terrorism, working with Israel in what otherwise would be a lawless Sinai. With the ascendancy of al-Sisi, Egypt has become a major nemesis of Hamas, sealing off tunnels that it used to smuggle arms into Gaza.
Those who argue that Egypt does not fully adhere to Western democratic standards should recognize that many other American allies in the region have far less open societies. Moreover, given the tumultuous recent past that has disrupted their lives, Egyptians, like most people, yearn for stability. Stability means, first and foremost, security, a roof over people’s heads and food in their bellies, an education, and a future for their children. Stability and democracy are not necessarily synonymous; stability, even more than a vibrant civil society, is a precondition for true democracy. While democracy can function in an unstable environment, even where there is a functioning civil society, it will always struggle. Pakistan, for example, has an active civil society. Yet one hardly would call it stable and accordingly, in light of its history of military coups, and the challenge of Islamic extremists, the longer term prospects for its current democratic governance are far from assured.
Egyptian Muslims, though religiously traditional, have nevertheless overwhelmingly rejected the harsh Islamism of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian Copts, increasingly persecuted during the brief Morsi era, see the election as nothing less than a relief. Egyptian business, reeling from the economic mismanagement — indeed incompetence — that characterized the Morsi regime, see the upcoming election as an opportunity once again to attract foreign investment. And Egyptian civil society views it as reprieve from a slow road to extinction.
The Obama administration has wisely recognized that it cannot dismiss Egypt’s importance. Russia has already made tempting overtures to Cairo. With its influence in Syria and ties to Iran, Moscow is clearly bidding to resuscitate its once influential role in the region. Washington’s decision to release ten Apache helicopters is a most welcome first step toward reviving its relationship with Cairo. But it is only a first step, and it can and should do more. Specifically, it can release other systems that Egypt has requested. It can authorize targeted economic assistance that Egypt desperately needs, and encourage American companies to invest in Egypt. Finally, it should welcome the winner of the upcoming elections and invite him to Washington, as it has invited Egyptian leaders for the past four decades, cementing an alliance that has been crucial to America’s long standing central role in the Middle East.
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C.| The Cable |
Blake Hounshell is managing editor at Foreign Policy, having formerly been Web editor. Hounshell oversees ForeignPolicy.com and has commissioned and edited numerous cover stories for the print magazine, including National Magazine Award finalist "Why Do They Hate Us?" by Mona Eltahawy. He also edits The Cable, FP's first foray into daily original reporting, and was editor of Colum Lynch's Turtle Bay, which in 2011 won a National Magazine award for best reporting in a digital format.
Blake joined Foreign Policy in 2006 after living in Cairo, where he studied Arabic, missed his Steelers finally win one for the thumb, and worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Blake was a 2011 finalist for the Livingston Awards prize for young journalists for his reporting on the Arab uprisings, and his Twitter feed was named one of Time magazine's "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011." Under his leadership, in 2008, Passport, FP's flagship blog, won Media Industry Newsletter's "Best of the Web" award in the blog category. Along with Elizabeth Dickinson, he edited Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future, the memoirs of former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.
A graduate of Yale University, Blake speaks mangled Arabic and French, is an avid runner, and lives in Washington with his wife, musician Sandy Choi, and their toddler, David. Follow him on Twitter @blakehounshell.| Passport |