- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is the 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.