The Middle East Channel

What the U.S. can do for Egypt

Two years after the Police Day demonstrations that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office, Egypt’s political transformation has only just begun. The uncertainty that necessarily accompanies this change presents particular dilemmas for the United States, for whom partnership with Egypt has been a bedrock of regional policy for decades. Bedeviled by uncertainty and mutual ...


Two years after the Police Day demonstrations that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office, Egypt’s political transformation has only just begun. The uncertainty that necessarily accompanies this change presents particular dilemmas for the United States, for whom partnership with Egypt has been a bedrock of regional policy for decades. Bedeviled by uncertainty and mutual mistrust, U.S.-Egyptian ties have been fraught since the revolution — and on both sides there are those who say it’s time to cut the cord. Yet these two countries still have many core interests in common and, as the November 2012 Gaza crisis proved, they can work together effectively to advance them.

For the United States, Egypt’s revolution presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more robust and reliable strategic partnership than was ever possible before, based on mutual interests with a government rooted in the consent of the Egyptian people and accountable to them. But realizing this opportunity will require an adroit, long-term approach, one that eschews transactional bargains with specific Egyptian actors in favor of a consistent commitment to supporting the emergence of a pluralistic Egyptian political system. 

U.S. policy toward Egypt since the revolution has rested on two pillars: preserving Egyptian-Israeli peace and the security of their shared border, and trying to support and stabilize a teetering Egyptian economy. The first has led the U.S. government to keep U.S. military aid to Egypt and other security ties as unchanged as possible; the second has led to a diligent if ineffective effort to provide economic assistance (stymied by poor Egyptian decision making, as well as political and budgetary dysfunction in Washington).

But like a stool with only two legs, this strategy is incomplete — and it will not produce stability in Egypt. Egypt’s crisis continues because its leaders have failed, and continue to fail, to practice the inclusive politics that are necessary to successfully make the big decisions facing the country. The United States, which has so far been too reticent about Egypt’s dangerously devolving politics, needs to weigh in and press President Mohamed Morsi and his party — as well as other relevant parties — to make the necessary accommodations to put Egypt back on the path to a stable democratic transition.

Some argue that the United States has little influence over political developments in Egypt today. But Washington still has a great deal to offer Egypt’s aspiring leaders — and it’s not mostly about aid dollars. Moreover, Egyptians inside and outside government still care what the U.S. government thinks and does about Egypt. Political winners and losers are appealing to Washington for support, and condemning U.S. interference — sometimes at the same time. If they thought Washington didn’t matter, they would not spend so much time trying to embroil the United States in their domestic arguments.

This is true for many Egyptian politicians, but for none so much as the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. Although they loudly proclaim that their narrow electoral victories are all the legitimacy they need to rule, that’s not how they behave. Privately, they desperately seek international recognition, and specifically the seal of approval from Western governments that would bring not only economic assistance but also a signal of reassurance to investors, business partners, tourists, and others whose engagement with the new Egypt is absolutely essential to its success. International recognition plays in domestic politics, too — Egyptians may resent the United States, but Egypt’s majority, its young people, want the opportunities for betterment that their parents were denied. And they know that in the 21st century, this will require Egypt to be tightly connected to the world — and bound to the norms and values of democracy, open society, and free trade.

Because Egyptians (and especially the Brotherhood) do still care what the United States thinks, the leverage Washington has is probably best deployed as incentives, not as threats or arm-twisting. Recognition, investment, support in international organizations, and expressions of partnership all matter, along with aid dollars.

But the United States cannot afford to take a shortsighted approach to Egypt’s transition. We cannot know who will come out on top in Egypt’s messy transition; and the U.S. government cannot afford to repeat its pre-revolutionary mistake of relying on a strong leader to give Washington what it needs and keep a lid on things at home. Instead, Washington must focus on two interlinked, long-term goals.

The first is building lasting stability in Egypt — and the lesson of the Arab Awakening is that stability will only come through political change. Whatever daunting economic and social problems they are facing, Egyptians have made clear that they want to solve those problems through decisions made by a democratic government that treats them with dignity. The U.S. government should support that goal consistently and help Egyptian citizens build the legal and political institutions and the social infrastructure that will help democracy emerge, thrive, and deliver results. 

The second goal is building a broad coalition in Egypt to support cooperative relations with the United States. For better or worse, Egypt’s foreign policy going forward will be influenced by its domestic politics. For that reason, it’s especially important that the United States not invest too much in a relationship with any one Egyptian faction, and not be seen as having taken sides in Egypt’s fractious politics. Rather, U.S. officials must reach across the political spectrum, and engage broadly with Egyptian society, to explain who they are, what they want, and what they can offer, and to make the case — together with those Egyptians who feel similarly — for a strong U.S.-Egyptian partnership.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s behavior since it began winning electoral contests during the spring of 2012, and Morsi’s behavior in office, have violated basic expectations for actors in democratic politics. The Brotherhood’s approach to the constitution is a clear case in point, revealing ambivalence about the principle of legal equality for all citizens, and a readiness to submit legislation to review by unelected religious officials — although they resisted mandatory review as proposed by Salafi parties. The constitution, drafted largely by Brotherhood and Salafi representatives and railroaded through a referendum by Morsi, subsumes individual rights to state authority, is dangerously weak on the rights of women and girls, and distinguishes harmfully between religions receiving full recognition and protection, and others that are not considered so deserving. Most troubling of all, the Brotherhood and Morsi have evidenced a willingness to condone and cover up the use of violence and torture by party cadres and by the internal security services against opposition activists and journalists — shockingly, the same tactics Mubarak used against the Brotherhood and other opponents of the old regime.

It’s true that, with all their flaws, the Brotherhood won the freest and fairest elections in Egypt’s modern history — and may win the next elections too. But electoral victory does not absolve the group of the obligation to adhere to democratic rules and norms — not if it wants to be recognized, and it most certainly does, as a democratically legitimate actor in Egypt and on the global stage. This is Washington’s real leverage — that the Brotherhood-led government wants U.S. recognition, and seeks U.S. partnership and support. Love it or hate it, there is simply no substitute for that photo-op in the Oval Office to signal to the world that you have arrived.

So while the Obama administration should continue to deal with Egypt’s elected leaders, it should not be afraid to make note of its profound disagreements with them — indeed, the United States manages to work with disagreeable leaders all over the world in pursuit of its interests. But U.S. officials should also make clear that engagement does not mean endorsement. At the same time, Washington should support, with all the tools at its disposal, those in Egypt working to hold the elected government accountable, those supporting and defending human rights, and those working to build the strong institutions, vibrant civil society, and pluralistic political system that will ensure the Brotherhood will face real competition from other voices. That means U.S. diplomatic and financial support for Egypt’s beleaguered civil society must resume immediately.

Until stronger parties can emerge to challenge the Brotherhood’s electoral dominance, and stronger institutions can check Morsi’s executive power, civil society and international scrutiny are the only means to hold the Brotherhood-led government accountable to basic democratic norms and to its own political promises. The Obama administration must not abdicate or downplay its responsibility to play this essential role.

The political opposition has lessons to learn as well, and needs encouragement to learn them. Some call for a boycott of the parliamentary elections, some for street demonstrations to force Morsi from office, some for a military coup. Any of these paths would exacerbate polarization and instability, taking Egypt farther away from a secure and democratic future.

If both sides continue to treat their political competition as a zero-sum game, both sides will lose — and they may take Egypt over the cliff with them. As a balance of payments crisis drifts closer and closer, fuel and flour shortages mount, and public discontent boils into the streets where police now carry live ammunition and torture activists with impunity, worries grow about the impact of this mutual intransigence on Egypt’s basic stability.

The looming crisis demands dialogue and compromise. The United States must press all the relevant actors in Egypt toward a pluralistic solution, not engage in wishful thinking about what will solve the crisis, and not provide top cover for those who are sitting in the hot seat and avoiding tough decisions. The United States wants to be a friend to Egypt — and that means it needs to have enough respect and hope for friendship with Egypt’s leaders to tell them the truth.

  • President Morsi needs the support of the political opposition for the tough economic reforms necessary to right the listing economy and secure desperately needed international assistance. He needs the participation of the opposition and the public in parliamentary elections if the new representative body is to act effectively and with authority to pass needed laws. Given these evident facts, he should express his readiness to amend electoral laws and procedures to improve confidence and participation in the process. And he should drop prosecution of politicians, journalists, and others under Egypt’s archaic seditious libel laws.
  • He needs the young, disaffected Egyptians to end their protests and invest in the new system — and that means he must prosecute abuses and torture by police and his own partisans.
  • The opposition needs to set aside its fears, bargain for appropriate assurances of fairness, and participate in the parliamentary elections to offer Egyptian voters a real choice. Although the Brotherhood’s intentions may be malign, opposition groups cannot expect that they will be the beneficiaries of the Brotherhood’s failures — especially if they eschew the spadework of nationwide political organization in favor of urban street protests.
  • The military, for its part, needs to understand that a coup d’état would be a disaster for Egypt, for stability, for democracy, and also for the military itself and for U.S.-Egyptian strategic cooperation. A coup would almost certainly torpedo the large and longstanding U.S. military aid package — already under threat from Washington budget hawks and those skeptical of Egypt’s prospects.

Egypt’s transition is still in an early and uncertain phase. The course of that transition matters deeply to the United States, and the United States still has significant capacity to affect the trajectory. Egyptians want a relationship with the United States, but one based on equality — rooted in mutual interests and mutual respect. Egyptians want a government that respects their rights and dignity, that answers to their priorities and serves at their pleasure. They want secure borders, safety on their streets, stable neighbors, and peace in their region. They want their country to lead in the region, and reach out to the world.

Conveniently enough, that is what Washington wants for them as well. Egypt’s leadership and its political elites will eventually harken to these demands, and learn the art of the deal, or they will face continued protests and instability and be seen as a failure in the eyes of Egyptians and the world. The U.S. government should wield its influence — rooted in clear principles and interests, and in cooperation with others — to support those in Egypt working to build sustainable democracy and a fruitful partnership with the United States. 

Tamara Cofman Wittes is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2009 to 2012.

Tamara Cofman Wittes is a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Twitter: @tcwittes

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