from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

What to Do in Egypt

January 31, 2014

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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It is a commonplace to say that U.S. policy in Egypt has managed to offend every political actor there, but it’s also true. From the army to the Muslim Brotherhood, from the liberals and democrats to Islamists, all share a deep disdain for American policy.

In one way all their criticisms are justified, for American policy has been unprincipled and appears to have been aimed at currying favor with whoever is in power: Mubarak, then the SCAF, then Morsi, and now the army again. As the ins and outs have changed position, they’ve all come to despise America’s approach.

What should we do in the immensely complex situation in Egypt? The Working Group on Egypt, of which I am a member, has just written to the President to urge an American policy that is both realistic and principled. The Group is a nonpartisan collection of former officials and think-tank analysts, which earned a bit of credit in 2009 and 2010 when we insisted that Mubarak’s Egypt was far less stable than it looked to many people. Here are some excerpts from our letter, the full text of which can be found here.

 

The idea that there will be a trade-off between democracy and stability in Egypt is false. A realistic assessment of what is happening in Egypt—a massive crackdown on members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, mounting repression of peaceful critics of the coup, societal polarization and troubling vigilante violence, persistent demonstrations, escalating militant attacks on police and military targets—shows that repressive, security-dominated rule will not produce long-, medium-, or even short-term stability. Especially since the events of 2011, the populace is more mobilized, more involved in politics, and more divided than ever. In these circumstances, pluralistic democratic institutions, and an opportunity for freedom of speech and assembly, will be necessary to allow citizens to struggle peacefully to resolve those divisions through compromise and democratic decision-making.

A wave of prosperity could in theory calm the political situation, at least temporarily, but the immense challenges facing Egypt’s economy make any quick fixes impossible; the restive political environment makes it unlikely that the public will swallow painful economic reforms while their political rights are squelched. Gulf largesse is likely to be squandered through short-term populist economic policies.

In fact, the brutal tactics now regularly used by the Egyptian government against civilians, the suppression of dissent, the crushing not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but of non Islamist political actors, and economic regression are likely to erode the popularity of Egypt’s rulers in short order. The banning of all peaceful dissent will close off space for moderate politics and will produce further repression, more unrest, and great economic damage. All in all, it is a formula for at best a brief honeymoon followed by increasing and long-lasting instability....

It is essential that you take a fresh look at U.S. policy towards Egypt and decide to use both diplomacy and assistance to send a clear message about what sort of future the United States wants to encourage for the country, and what sort of actions it cannot support....

We urge you to instruct Secretary of State Kerry not to certify that Egypt’s government has met the Congressionally-mandated conditions solely, or primarily, on the basis of its holding elections or following other procedural aspects of democracy while it also carries out massive human rights violations with impunity. The hollowness of the recent constitutional referendum was made clear by the government’s blatant disregard of the rights and freedoms the new Constitution purports to protect, notably the rights of freedom of assembly and expression that were crudely denied before and after the vote. The near-certainty that General al-Sissi will run for president makes it even clearer that real political contestation has ended.

Rather, we urge you to take seriously the question of certifying that the Egyptian government is “taking steps to support a democratic transition,” and to tell Egyptian officials that you will certify only if they take the following steps:

  • End the broad security and media campaign against those who peacefully oppose the actions of the interim government and the military, release the thousands of opposition group members, supporters, and activists now detained on questionable charges and with disregard for their due-process rights, and allow all citizens not implicated in violence to participate fully in political life
  • End the use of live ammunition to disperse protesters, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators, and respect basic rights to freedom of peaceful assembly
  • Cease repression of other peaceful dissidents and drop investigations and lawsuits launched against youth activists, former members of parliament, journalists, and academics for peaceful activity protected by international human rights treaties to which Egypt is a signatory
  • Stop media campaigns against the United States and American organizations, which are contributing to an unprecedented level of anti-American sentiment as well as endangering Americans and other foreigners, not only in Egypt but in neighboring countries where Egyptian media are present.

Unless the Egyptian government takes these steps, we recommend that all or most assistance continue to be suspended in order to send a clear message of concern and disapproval about the dangerous course Egypt is on.

The United States may have valid reasons of state interest for sustaining counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation with the Egyptian government. In an environment in which peaceful political activists, academics, and analysts are being hit with specious charges of espionage and terrorism, however, the United States must take extreme care to focus its terrorism and intelligence cooperation with Egypt on real threats to U.S. interests, and make clear to the Egyptian government that it will not endorse or contribute to an all-out war on the regime’s political opponents.

I realize that many will read this letter and think it utopian and out of touch with reality. But I’ve been hearing for years how supporting repression in Egypt is the only "realistic" path for the United States, and I find that the "realist" approach is the one so often out of touch with reality. As the passages above argue, a military dictatorship in Egypt is unlikely to reform the economy (in part because the army will seek to protect, not reform, its vast commercial holdings) and produce prosperity, nor is repression likely to produce social peace. Egyptians are deeply divided. If there is no opportunity to struggle politically over the country’s path, it is likely that the struggle will take place in the streets. Mubarak ran Egypt as a military dictatorship for 30 years and that period produced today’s instability. More of the same formula will produce more of the same result.

The Working Group’s letter ends this way:

The United States cannot control what happens in Egypt, but a consistent U.S. stand for democracy and human rights can influence the political trajectory of this important U.S. ally. Such a strategy will be far more successful over time than subsidizing a brutal crackdown and putting U.S. credibility behind a political arrangement that works against U.S. interests as well as those of Egyptian citizens.

More on:

Middle East and North Africa

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Egypt

Human Rights

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