The Unanswered Questions to Political Reform in Egypt–and What’s Lacking in U.S. Policy

Mohamed ElBaradei laid out in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post some steps to advance political reform in Egypt, calling on the international community to “support our struggle for freedom,” and to “hold Egypt to its international commitments with respect to human rights.” Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks, who published a letter to the editor in the Washington Post just the day before, pressed for more answers:

While [ElBaradei] provides an answer to the question of what to do to advance reform, the steps he recommends are hardly original. The unanswered questions are myriad and increasingly pressing: what is the alternative (or alternatives) to Mubarak’s rule? How to get from here to there? What are the institutions and the political forces that can lead and sustain a viable change agenda?

Hicks, also fleshes out the argument he made in his letter responding to Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner’s op-ed “A Chance for Democracy in Egypt,” urging more action from the U.S. government:

From official statements, including presidential speeches, the U.S. government would appear to agree with ElBaradei that advancing human rights and democracy in Egypt is necessary. What has been lacking is a willingness to back lofty rhetoric with a serious engagement with the many unanswered questions of what change will look like in Egypt, how it will be achieved and who the U.S. can work with to achieve the most desirable outcomes – from the point of view of U.S. interests, but also in terms of the well being, social peace, prosperity and stability of the Egyptian people. These questions will find their own answers sooner or later since change is unavoidably coming, not least in the form of a new President. Given Egypt’s importance as a U.S. ally and as a regional trendsetter the need to find a game plan for advancing human rights, democracy and political reform during and after the succession period would seem to merit a more urgent policy response from the Obama administration than it has received to date.

Read his full response below: Mohamed ElBaradei concluded his Op-ed in the Washington Post on December 26 with a call to the international community to “support our struggle for freedom,” and to “hold Egypt to its international commitments with respect to human rights.” This kind of worthy exhortation is paradoxically both self-evidently correct and so empty a policy prescription as to be almost meaningless. It is the boilerplate of multilateral organizations, through which the international community speaks, and, for the most part, also standard parlance for U.S. policy makers. To be fair to ElBaradei, since his return to Egypt in February he has made a valiant effort to give some precise content to the oft-expressed general sentiment that Egypt would do well to: advance political reform; democratize; advance human rights; provide more representative governance for its people etc. The seven point platform of the National Association for Change (NAC) represents a broadly shared agenda for democratic reform of the political process. It encapsulates what reform would look like in the context of Egypt’s 2010- 2011 electoral season. As such, it is instructive that ElBaradei has received so little explicit support from the international community and from U.S. policy makers. Part of this may be ElBaradei’s fault in that he may not have been completely clear about his personal intentions in campaigning for political change. If he is campaigning to win the presidency for himself then foreign governments are well advised to be wary about picking favorites in other country’s elections. But, ElBaradei has managed to communicate the message that he does not see himself as the savior of Egypt, and that systemic change, not personal advancement, is his primary goal. His young supporters, whom I have met with in Cairo, regard this as one of his attractions. In short, it should not be too difficult for U.S. policy makers to separate the man from the message. ElBaradei’s, and the NAC’s, specific proposals for change can and should be evaluated on their merits. ElBaradei is surely right when he sounds a cautionary note about the consequences of failure to advance political reform in Egypt. Again, similar admonitions have appeared before in statements from U.S. policy makers. However, the calculation in the past has always been that whatever the failings of the current regime, the alternative could be worse for U.S. interests. ElBaradei’s article is, unfortunately, unlikely to dispel those lingering concerns. While he provides an answer to the question of what to do to advance reform, the steps he recommends are hardly original. The unanswered questions are myriad and increasingly pressing: what is the alternative (or alternatives) to Mubarak’s rule? How to get from here to there? What are the institutions and the political forces that can lead and sustain a viable change agenda? ElBaradei is to be commended for articulating a reasonable agenda for change and for mobilizing substantial popular support around these goals, but having a platform, and having a viable strategy to bring about desired changes are two separate things. From official statements, including presidential speeches, the U.S. government would appear to agree with ElBaradei that advancing human rights and democracy in Egypt is necessary. What has been lacking is a willingness to back lofty rhetoric with a serious engagement with the many unanswered questions of what change will look like in Egypt, how it will be achieved and who the U.S. can work with to achieve the most desirable outcomes – from the point of view of U.S. interests, but also in terms of the well being, social peace, prosperity and stability of the Egyptian people. These questions will find their own answers sooner or later since change is unavoidably coming, not least in the form of a new President. Given Egypt’s importance as a U.S. ally and as a regional trendsetter the need to find a game plan for advancing human rights, democracy and political reform during and after the succession period would seem to merit a more urgent policy response from the Obama administration than it has received to date.

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Published on January 3, 2011

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