What Obama Should Do About Post-Mubarak Egypt

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Egypt in the post-Mubarak era poses serious challenges to the interests—and values—of the United States and its partners in the Middle East. The large-scale protests yesterday that forced controversial President Mohamed Morsi from his presidential compound vividly illustrate what is at stake as Cairo continues the long and difficult political process of moving away from a dictatorship.

But despite the fact that Egypt held its first truly competitive presidential election in June 2012, Cairo's newly-empowered government, led by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, has vastly expanded the powers of the presidency and state. In recent months, Morsi has fired rivals in the country's military, issued decrees that restrict judicial review, stacked the Constituent Assembly—tasked with writing the new constitution—with Islamists, and rushed a draft constitution that raises serious questions about the future role of religion in the Egyptian state. These power grabs raise the risk that the country's fledgling political transition could quickly derail.

As protestors once again swarm the streets of Tahrir Square, it is imperative that the United States do more to encourage the Morsi government to reverse its power play and respect the will of the Egyptian people. This should include demanding Cairo demonstrably move towards a government that respects the impartial rule of law; protects the rights of ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and women; upholds fundamental liberties and competitive politics; and preserves peace and stability in the Middle East. To accomplish this, the Obama administration should clearly denounce the Morsi government's power-grab, criticize the rushed draft constitution as a step backward for democracy and human rights in Egypt, and  vocally support the people and groups in the country that share truly democratic values.  

In particular, the Obama administration should work with the new U.S. Congress to pursue the following policies towards Egypt:

  • Condition U.S. civilian and military foreign assistance to Egypt. Cairo has been one of Washington's major regional partners for more than 40 years.  As part of that bilateral partnership, Egypt has been one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign assistance for decades. The Obama administration should work with the new U.S. Congress to clearly establish nonnegotiable "red lines" that the Morsi government should not cross, with the aim of protecting the key interests of the United States and its partners as Cairo‘s political transition continues. Future assistance should be more directly tied to protecting the rights of ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and women; cooperating on counterterrorism; holding free and fair elections; maintaining the peace treaty with Israel; and protecting the U.S. diplomats, the American Embassy in Cairo, and other U.S. government facilities.
  • Promote—and protect—human rights and democracy in Egypt. The Obama administration has done little to date to ensure that Egypt's political transition occurs with the full respect of human rights and democratic values. After 30 years under Hosni Mubarak's rule, Egypt's progression towards more democratic governance will not be easy. The Obama administration should work with Congress to positively pressure the Morsi government to ensure the rights of ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and women are expressly protected in the country's new constitution. A continued lack of leadership on Washington's part could lead to the unfortunate consequence of replacing the secular dictator of Hosni Mubarak with the illiberal Islamist regime of the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States has more leverage over the Morsi government than many policymakers realize. Washington should not refrain from using a hard-nose, leverage-based approach to protect human rights and democratic values again in the future, especially if and when the Morsi government's violations merit it.
  • Leverage U.S.-Egyptian economic and trade relations. To help fulfill the promise of the Arab Spring, Washington must prioritize Egypt's economic development by strategically restructuring foreign assistance to aid the development of free-market institutions; encouraging economic growth and development; and passing U.S. legislation to establish meaningful and mutually beneficial trade and investment opportunities between Egypt and the United States. As retiring U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman noted at the Foreign Policy Initiative's 2012 Forum last Tuesday, the goals of the revolutionaries who ousted Murbarak "were as much economic as they were political." With 40 percent of Egyptians living on less than $2 a day and an unemployment rate fluctuating between 12.2 percent and 12.6 percent, the Egyptian people need jobs. If Cairo takes meaningful steps to ensure minority rights and future elections, the United States should work expand trade opportunities to Egypt and work with the private sector to facilitate greater levels of foreign direct investment.   

Although Egypt completed its first competitive presidential election this year, it is important to remember that elections—by themselves—do not produce a democracy. Indeed, it remains far from clear whether post-Mubarak Egypt will succeed in creating and sustaining durable democratic institutions that respect the impartial rule of law, uphold minority and women's rights, and protect fundamental liberties like free speech. As a longtime partner of Egypt, Washington is in the unique position to proactively and positively influence this process.  

However, as protesters return to Tahrir Square to protest Morsi's aggressive power-grab and illiberal, Islamic-oriented draft constitution, Washington's ability to influence Egypt's transition is waning. In part, this reflects the Obama administration's unwillingness to recalibrate U.S. resources to help guide Egypt's political transition. Before these protests spiral further out of control, the administration must act.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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