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Shadow Government

Why Obama needs to revamp his Egypt strategy

As Will points out, U.S. policy toward Egypt is in serious need of an overhaul. An example of this was a State Department announcement on April 16 that Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero would be travelling to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank. Her stop in Egypt attracted some interest ...


As Will points out, U.S. policy toward Egypt is in serious need of an overhaul. An example of this was a State Department announcement on April 16 that Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero would be travelling to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank. Her stop in Egypt attracted some interest from those who follow democracy issues. Was the Obama administration finally ready to take a stand in favor of democratic reform in Egypt?

Unfortunately, no. According to State’s press release, Otero was travelling through the region to discuss "water issues." The statement noted that Otero would discuss democracy and human rights along with other global affairs issues in each country, but the message to Egyptian democracy and human rights activists was clear.

In the weeks that followed, it was reported that U.S. democracy funding for the country was cut by more than half and that the administration was considering Egypt’s proposal to create an "endowment fund" of out of $50 million of the massive annual assistance package it receives from the U.S. government. This fund, called the "Mubarak Trust Fund" by some, would have limited Congressional oversight and as Stephen McInerney notes, send exactly the wrong message to the Mubarak regime.

This debate over aid is just one piece of a larger problem with the U.S.-Egypt relationship. Egyptian society has served as a breeding ground for several generations of Islamic extremists. For decades, U.S. policy toward Egypt has been clouded by U.S. desires to support Egypt’s 1978 peace agreement with Israel and more recently, the supposedly key role it plays in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, all by propping up a dictatorial police state that is unpopular with its citizenry.

After 9/11, it became clear to many that the U.S. role in supporting repressive regimes like that in Cairo had something to do with the extremism that was emanating from key U.S. Arab allies. The Bush administration subsequently attempted to make electoral reform an issue in the relationship, upsetting Hosni Mubarak, but sending a clear message to activists on the ground about U.S. intentions. Progress, however, was minimal and certain arms of the U.S. government, such as the State Department, never embraced the President’s strategy.

Despite President Bush’s rhetoric on this issue, many Egyptian activists had high hopes for President Obama.  Many of them were in the audience when he delivered his speech at the American University of Cairo in June last year. But when I visited Cairo in November for a conference, I found the men and women fighting for human rights and democracy in Egypt looking for action, not more rhetoric. They told stories about cuts to their U.S. funding or new procedures whereby only Egyptian-government approved organizations could receive grants. One activist told me of a phone call from his intelligence ministry minder joking that if you want U.S. money this year, let me know because I can help pull some strings.

Despite this benign neglect by the Obama administration, Egypt faces its best chance for reform because of an unlikely character. Mohamed El Baradei, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), returned to Egypt in February and has since been feted by opposition groups. It is not clear that El Baradei will run for President in 2011 — he has smartly demanded that before he decides, he wants the system to be reformed. This rightly has caused many Egyptians to question why, under current Egyptian law, a leading international figure and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize cannot run for President just because he is not a member of a government-approved political party.

In the waning months of his time at the IAEA, El Baradei reportedly worked closely with the Obama administration. President Obama even spoke to him on the phone several times as the United States tried to get Iran to agree to a nuclear fuel swap. Now, however, the administration has been mum on Mr. El Baradei’s potential electoral ambitions.

Outside Egypt, El Baradei has been treated rather poorly. Ilan Berman wrote an article on Foreign Policy’s website criticizing him for meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood and stating that he might become the "savior of Egypt’s Islamist opposition." An article in The Weekly Standard noted his poor stewardship of the IAEA and his failure to halt Iran’s race toward a nuclear weapon.

The continued popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed cause for concern but one meeting should not be construed to imply that the secular El Baradei will somehow save the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is a major political force in Egypt, winning 20 percent of the seats in parliament in 2005. It is also not a monolith and if El Baradei decides to run, he will have to try to win over some of its moderate elements.

It is true that under El Baradei, especially after the invasion of Iraq and the U.S. failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the IAEA became increasingly anti-American. El Baradei went out of his way to go easy on the Iranians despite evidence that Iran continued to flout its international commitments. However, El Baradei is contemplating a run for the Presidency of Egypt, not of the United States. His credentials as an independent minded international civil servant make it clear that this is not some democratic reformer being foisted on the Egyptian people by Washington.

These commentators are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. El Baradei represents the best chance for democratic reform in Egypt that we may see for some time. It is time for the Obama administration to take a stand on Egypt’s upcoming elections and make clear to the geriatric Mubarak that his departure from the political scene is not cause for the elevation of his son Gamal to the presidency.

In addition to calling for reform of Egypt’s electoral laws, the next time Mr. El Baradei is in Washington senior administration officials should meet with him to send the message that how Egypt handles this leadership transition will impact the overall U.S.-Egypt relationship. Washington should also rein in our ambassador in Cairo who has repeatedly made comments that have undermined the work of democracy and human rights activists in that country.

President Obama has tried to repair the U.S.-Egypt relationship to further U.S. efforts in the region, but also spoke about the importance of democracy during his Cairo speech. Now that the peace process has gone off the rails, perhaps it is time to set aside that short-term concern and the water issues and focus on achieving real democratic change in Egypt. Egyptians are watching whether the President’s actions will match his rhetoric.

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