Round One of the Egypt Policy Challenge!

Last week, Egyptian human rights activist Bahieddin Hassan penned an open letter to Barack Obama which asked “that spokespeople and officials in your administration stop commenting on developments in Egypt.” After reciting the liberal narrative on what ails Egypt (short version: the Muslim Brotherhood), he concluded that “as long as they cannot speak the truth ...


Last week, Egyptian human rights activist Bahieddin Hassan penned an open letter to Barack Obama which asked "that spokespeople and officials in your administration stop commenting on developments in Egypt." After reciting the liberal narrative on what ails Egypt (short version: the Muslim Brotherhood), he concluded that "as long as they cannot speak the truth about what is happening in Egypt," the United States should simply "keep silent."  He must therefore have been very pleased with President Obama's State of the Union Address, which devoted only one brief passage to Egypt and to the broader challenges in the Arab world. Who says we don't listen to Arab liberals? 

Last week, Egyptian human rights activist Bahieddin Hassan penned an open letter to Barack Obama which asked “that spokespeople and officials in your administration stop commenting on developments in Egypt.” After reciting the liberal narrative on what ails Egypt (short version: the Muslim Brotherhood), he concluded that “as long as they cannot speak the truth about what is happening in Egypt,” the United States should simply “keep silent.”  He must therefore have been very pleased with President Obama’s State of the Union Address, which devoted only one brief passage to Egypt and to the broader challenges in the Arab world. Who says we don’t listen to Arab liberals? 

Well, as they say, sometimes you can get what you want and still not be happy.  Here’s all Obama had to say about Egypt and the Arab uprisings last night:  

“In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.  The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can – and will – insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people.” 

Now, in my view that’s pretty much where the U.S. position should be: not seeking to dictate outcomes or take sides, avoiding the mistake of constantly inserting itself unproductively or even counterproductively into the daily turbulence of Egyptian politics, supporting the consolidation of democratic institutions and laying out a normative benchmark on fundamental universal rights.  Sure, I’d like to see this stated more prominently and forcefully, with a fully articulated strategy and vision for engagement and promoting democratic change – but the State of the Union probably wasn’t the time or place for that.

Still, his brief comment, buried deep in the speech, is unlikely to satisfy an Egypt policy community or an Egyptian public which generally wants to see something more.  But what, exactly?  On February 1, I put out a friendly challenge to the policy community to specify what precisely this more robust policy might be.   I don’t think that the policy debate has really engaged with how the radically changed Egyptian political landscape affects the value of the  standard toolkit of democracy promotion – pro-democracy rhetoric, support for civil society organizations, and using aid as leverage.  So I posed six questions:  how to deal with Islamists likely to fare well in elections; how to effectively support liberals in the actually existing Egyptian political arena; how to differentiate between supporting the democratic process and supporting the current government; whether conditionality on military aid would have an effect given the current political role of the SCAF; whether conditionality on economic aid was appropriate at a time of economic crisis; and how to engage with a suspicious and often hostile Egyptian public.

I got fewer responses from the policy community than I had hoped for, but we’re all very busy.  I did get quite a few variations on the “we shouldn’t be trying to promote democracy” and “the U.S. isn’t really interested in democracy” themes, which are defensible positions but don’t answer the questions posed. Egyptians seemed far more likely than American policy analysts to offer some version of “Washington should just butt out of Egyptian affairs.” 

The most common answer (for a good example see Juul below) was to more forcefully, consistently and vocally call out Morsi’s government when it abused democratic procedures and human rights.  I agree completely that such public rhetoric should be deployed (I quite liked the consisently excellent Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner’s comments today), but let’s be honest: it probably wouldn’t actually affect very much, it only opens up the obvious next question of matching words with deeds, and nobody seems to notice much when the U.S. does issue such criticisms (for instance, Ambassador Anne Patterson’s critical comments in Alexandria this week, widely seen as a departure, were actually virtually identical to Hillary Clinton’s comments in the same city last July). I’d like to see a bit more thinking here about step two:  after we’ve issued these public criticisms of the Muslim Brotherhood, or recognized their unconstructive role, what next?  What is meant to follow from this recognition or from the public rhetoric?  

At any rate, here are some of the best of the responses I received: Elijah Zarwan gives sharp responses to five of the six questions;  Peter Juul (on behalf of the excellent team at the Center for American Progress) calling for more public criticism of Muslim Brotherhood mistakes; Jeb Ober of Democracy International calls to support liberal organizations and trends, but not parties; and Joshua Slepin points to more effective ways to leverage ties to Egypt’s military.


Elijah Zarwan, Cairo-based analyst

1. The Islamists.    Whatever US attitudes toward the Brotherhood, calls for barring its political party from elections or refusing to deal with elected Brotherhood politicians would be counterproductive and frankly obscene, given the solid relationship with the previous dictatorial regime. Dropping relations with an elected government after maintaining close ties with an unelected, corrupt, and often brutal dictatorship is no way to support democracy. If the government of Egypt — any government of Egypt — backslides on human rights or on democratic values (as the current government has), the United States should certainly continue to speak out, forcefully and clearly, but in the context of a frank disagreement among partners with a shared interest in Egypt’s prosperity and stability. The old adage that in politics there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests, applies: A stable, prosperous Egypt with regular, peaceful rotation of power is, above all, in Egyptians’ interests, but also in Americans’ interests. It is in no one’s interest to see Egypt fall. If an Egyptian government — any Egyptian government — makes serious mistakes, the United States may certainly express its alarm. But such messages are more likely to be received if there is an interlocutor on the other end of the line. 

2.  Supporting Liberals.   US support — overt or covert — for secular Egyptian political parties would be the surest way to ensure their failure. These parties must already refute charges of trying to implement a foreign agenda and of representing a westernized elite. Tarring them by association with the United States, which remains broadly unpopular in Egypt among seculars and Islamists alike, would be counterproductive. US politicians and officials should absolutely continue to meet with and to advise the opposition, as they should absolutely continue to meet with and advise the government, but material support is a waste of political and financial capital. Few of the good civil-society groups accept US government funding, on principle and out of fear of criticism and legal reprisals. In the current moment, the US could best support Egyptian civil society by expressing its concerns about the current, restrictive draft NGO law, which human rights groups have correctly decried as more restrictive than the law it would replace. 

3.  The Process.   Accepting the results of elections does indeed risk being seen as support for the victors. Many of the Brotherhood’s opponents, including intelligent, well-informed people, continue to believe that Shafiq won the presidential elections but that the United States interceded on behalf of the Brotherhood. This is perhaps unavoidable. Again, the United States can best support minority rights in Egypt and respect for fundamental human rights by continuing to speak about these issues, in public and in private. The current Egyptian government has repeatedly stressed its commitment to international treaties. That is generally taken as a byword for one treaty: that with Israel. US policy should reflect an equal concern for Egypt’s human-rights commitments. 

4.  Conditionality on military aid.  Threatening the Brotherhood with the prospect of a cut to US military aid is in effect threatening the Brotherhood with the prospect of a military coup, which would be an inherently undemocratic outcome. Moreover, the US should not be in the business of making threats it cannot realistically keep. As the question notes, most of the money in US military aid changes hands in Washington; it is equally a subsidy to the US military-industrial complex, funded by the American taxpayer, as it is a strategic and foreign policy tool. The challenge for US policymakers during this turbulent time will be to maintain good relations with Egypt, the state and the people, without appearing to enter an impassioned domestic political struggle. Military-to-military ties are an important component of that relationship, but need not be the only component, or even the backbone of that relationship. It is in the US interest to broaden and deepen its ties to the nation of Egypt. Perhaps the correct approach is to continue to foster ties on many levels: business-to-business, legislature-to-legislature, jurist-to-jurist, student-to-student, scientist-to-scientist, farmer-to-farmer, and religious-leader-to-religious-leader. 

5.  Conditionality on economic assistance.

Egypt’s economic crisis, and US influence in the Bretton Woods institutions, superficially presents an opportunity for leverage. It is a dangerous game, however. Since the 2011 uprising, the specter of economic collapse has hovered menacingly in the middle-ground. It is now more immediate. Should the feared economic meltdown occur, the results could be severely destabilizing, with little guarantee that whoever succeeds the current government would pursue policies more palatable to foreign governments or institutions. Acute economic hardship and a breakdown in state services risk producing a sentimentality for the old regime and undermining prospects for democratic reform. 



Peter Juul, Center for American Progress:

The ongoing political and security crisis in Egypt has spilled a lot of virtual ink in the policy community here in Washington (see Brian Katulis, Ken Sofer, and my  take on the situation). We see Egypt undergoing a perfect storm of political, security, and economic crises that President Mohamed Morsi and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood have greatly contributed to with their inept, self-interested approach to governance and political transition over the last year. But the current crisis shouldn’t be cause for rash action by the United States – financial assistance shouldn’t be abruptly cut off, and the United States should maintain support for Egypt in international financial institutions like the IMF. At the same time, however, we argue that the Obama administration should respond more vocally than it has to date to actions and rhetoric of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood that undermine the prospects for an inclusive political transition.

While Marc Lynch’s analysis ultimately delivers an overall recommendation similar to ours – don’t rashly cut off or otherwise reconfigure U.S. assistance to Egypt – it comes from an analysis that appears too eager to absolve the Muslim Brotherhood of its large role in Egypt’s current mess and insists too hard that the Obama administration hasn’t made mistakes in its handling of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi.

Lynch’s argument appears to be directed at those analysts who contend that the Obama administration isn’t being supportive enough of Egyptian democracy or non-Islamist political parties and movements or hard enough on the Brotherhood and President Morsi. (This piece by Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is a case in point.) He correctly notes that, contrary to the rumors that swirl around the Middle East (and among more extreme conservatives here in the United States), the Obama administration is no more “backing” President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt than it is “backing” Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom. And he’s right that the non-Islamist opposition in Egypt is weak, fragmented, and feckless, and therefore unable for the time being to present an effective political challenge to the Brotherhood under normal circumstances like parliamentary elections.

But Lynch’s analysis founders on the false dichotomy he posits between two analyses of the current situation in Egypt. One the one hand, he argues, are analysts like Trager who see the Muslim Brotherhood driving to dominate Egyptian state and society by authoritarian means. This group, Lynch says, wants the United States to distance itself from President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, support Egypt’s fractious non-Islamist opposition, and condition American aid on democratic and inclusive government. On the other hand, Lynch sketches out what is presumably his own position: a somewhat sympathetic view of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government as a victim of circumstances largely out of its control. This government is “weak, ineffective and paralyzed,” can’t control the bureaucracy, can’t provide basic security, and remains fearful of the military.

But Lynch’s dichotomy is itself founded on a series of false dichotomies.  There is no good reason to assume that the propositions that the Egyptian government is “weak, ineffective and paralyzed” and that the Muslim Brotherhood is attempting to dominate the process of political transition and expand its control over the Egyptian state are mutually exclusive. They can, in fact, be complementary – the Muslim Brotherhood may be attempting to dominate the transition process and Egyptian state because it is weak, ineffective and paralyzed. The weaker President Morsi feels, the more important it will be for him and the Brotherhood to extend and consolidate their control over state and society. And this attempt itself fuels both active and passive opposition to the Brotherhood among Egyptians.

Ultimately, though, the main flaw with Lynch’s analysis is that it fails to take into account the rather large role the Brotherhood and President Morsi have played in creating Egypt’s current predicament. The Brotherhood-dominated parliament – nearly half the seats in the legislature are filled by members of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party – failed not once but twice to produce an inclusive Constituent Assembly to draft the new Egyptian constitution. And when non-Islamists began withdrawing from the Assembly in November and Egyptian courts threatened to dissolve it yet again, Morsi granted himself wide-ranging powers immune from judicial review that gave a now even-more Islamist-dominated Assembly cover under which to rush through a constitution.

While Lynch admits the Muslim Brotherhood has “performed abysmally in power,” his overall analysis ignores the extent to which President Morsi and the Brotherhood are themselves part of the problem. The Brotherhood’s exceedingly poor management of the constitution drafting process – in particular the debacle of President Morsi’s decree and the rushed passage of the constitution – has contributed mightily to the current crisis of political legitimacy President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated legislature now face. Throughout 2012, the Brotherhood gave the appearance of riding roughshod over other the interests and concerns of other political parties and societal groups – non-Islamists in particular. In an era in which there are multiple centers of power in Egypt (as we at the Center have argued for quite some time), the Brotherhood’s failure to govern in an inclusive manner – the negative circumstances in which it has had to operate notwithstanding – was bound to create some sort of reaction, if not precisely the one we’re seeing on the streets of Egypt today.

Lynch’s ultimate policy recommendations – “Stop the crisis, fix the institutions, stabilize the economy” – are sound, but impossible to accomplish given the way the Brotherhood has behaved in power over the last year. They have shown no sign they are ready to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Neither winning a legitimate election, nor a fragmented opposition, nor a still-powerful military establishment absolves the Brotherhood of its manifest failures in governance and shepherding a political transition.

And while, as noted earlier, Lynch’s ultimate general recommendation – don’t do anything rash – is in sync with those Brian, Ken, and I proposed, the other general recommendation that the Obama administration should keep doing what it has been doing is flawed. Lynch rightly notes that Obama administration officials have exhorted Egypt’s new leaders to adhere to universal values like human rights and democracy. But these exhortations – most definitely defensible at the time – have not been matched with criticisms of Egyptian missteps, most notably during what we called “the muted U.S. response to President Morsi’s decree.” Relying on exhortations has not worked to shape, change, or constrain President Morsi’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s negative behavior thus far, and sharper criticisms of their unhelpful and damaging actions would at very least help dispel notions in Egypt and the wider region that the United States wants the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of Egypt.

In short, Lynch posits a false dichotomy of analytical frameworks for Egypt that ultimately lets the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi off the hook for their large contributions to Egypt’s current unrest. And while we arrive at the same place in terms of not rashly changing our aid relationship to Cairo, we differ in that we believe that seeing the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi as part of the problem of Egypt’s multiple crises is critical to adjusting U.S. policy going forward. Exhortations to good behavior are no longer adequate given a year’s worth of ill will the Muslim Brotherhood has accumulated as a result of its behavior in power.


Jed Ober, Director of Programs, Democracy International

The short answer is, I think, that leftists organizations want our support, but leftist political parties do not. Shortly thereafter the fall of Mubarak I spent a significant amount of time in Egypt talking to such individuals and organizations. It’s important to make a distinction here between Egyptian civil society and Egyptian political parties and political organizations. Egyptian political parties and organizations are wary to engage with U.S. democratic development organizations and are not likely to accept such support. It’s not that they don’t want political advice and guidance, it’s that they don’t want it from us for of fear alienating their domestic constituency which would see such assistance as foreign interference and as an example of foreign agents challenging Egypt’s sovereignty. Egyptian civil society is not averse, however, to working with American based organizations and receiving assistance from USAID, MEPI, or other U.S. donor organizations. Based on this reality, it would be smart for the U.S. to continue to provide assistance to such organizations, albeit perhaps in a more strategic way. Civil society assistance is often given through funding mechanisms with broad scopes. USAID and MEPI would be well suited to think more strategically about such assistance in Egypt and focus more on targeted advocacy initiatives as opposed to broader civic participation activities. One area of focus could be on organizations that aggregate and advocate for specific interests – such as labor or trade unions – and thus engage citizens in the political process in terms they can understand personally.

The Islamists?

We can’t “oppose” the Muslim Brotherhood while supporting democracy in Egypt, particularly if they continue to win Egyptian elections, as seems likely to be the case. That policy is likely to sow more discontent in Egypt and throughout the Middle East and will trigger a backlash throughout the region similar to what we saw after the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. We must support the expansion of democratic freedoms and respect the results of elections in Egypt and elsewhere, or else our ability to engage in democratic development in the Middle East will wane. At the same time, however, we must be willing to speak out when such rights and freedoms are threatened, as the administration has done at times. Targeted support to civil society and other interest groups is the best way to support opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and not necessarily threaten the potential for a productive working relationship with the current Egyptian government.  We also must find a way to employ a more nuanced policy that specifically empowers moderate voices in Freedom and Justice and more generally recognizes the reality of political Islam. This is where the most thought and work is needed.


Joshua Slepin, Whitman College and independent researcher

The Egyptian military is one of the few Egyptian institutions with which we have deep ties and long experience, though Operation Bright Star and other initiatives. The US does not have much ability to effect change (for the better or otherwise) in Egypt, but it should be able to leverage military ties (via aid and other, less exploitative means) to quietly work towards a beneficial situation. The SCAF has handed things off, but it is still part of the regime – maybe the real regime, depending on how you want to look at it – and the need to appease its top leaders is still real. The US has never been squeamish about working with despicable parties, so I’m not sure why either Islamist governments or publicly obstreperous militaries would be different. It seems to me that the biggest obstacle is that by intent, most of the US-Egyptian military relationships are one-sided. Egyptian military personnel have long been ordered not to give too much away to their US counterparts, and this holds true for informal friendships as well. Consequently, we only have vague notions of how the military thinks. Correcting this imbalance is the real condition that needs to be addressed for any military aid to have effects beyond simply improving Egypt’s military prowess or largess. 

Beyond the military, and touching upon some of the other issues you’ve raised, I’d recommend the US working for a Peace Corps presence in Egypt. Like the above, the Peace Corps creates personal ties that over the long run do more to promote friendship and US value-sharing, and even create the institutions and organizations that the US may one day be able to leverage, than most other diplomatic or economic means. A Peace Corps mission could help in shoring up education and health systems badly in need of help, and at a fraction of the cost of other solutions. It may also be able to operate “under the radar,” without raising hackles like more overtly political organizations (NDI, IRI, or even USAID).


Thanks to all who participated, over Twitter or email or in person, and I’m completely open to offering a Round Two if more of you would like to offer your thoughts!

Oh, and on getting what you want, who could forget Pope Cerebus… thanks to whoever uploaded this.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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