When Will U.S. Policy Match Administration Rhetoric?

While it was encouraging to see Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner continuing to call for political reform in Egypt in Saturday’s Washington Post it seems reasonable to ask whether Posner’s piece might not be too little too late as the administration’s response to the sham parliamentary elections conducted in Egypt at the end of November. Assistant Secretary Posner went to Cairo prior to the elections and made a strong case for the Egyptian government to take steps to improve the fairness and transparency of the elections.  His advice was ignored.  The administration had been calling on Egypt to hold free and fair elections for months, but obvious flaws in the electoral process went unremedied without any strong reaction from the U.S. government and with predictable results. Administration officials have stated that achieving democratic progress in Egypt is “essential,” and high level policy statements have described human rights and democracy promotion globally as in the national security interest of the United States, or as a “pragmatic necessity,” in the words of President Obama. Yet, in specific countries where the U.S. government carries influence because of a close bi-lateral relationship the administration has failed to pursue policies that match the urgency of its rhetoric. Egypt is a paradigmatic example of this failure.  The U.S. government has a long standing alliance with Egypt and has provided tens of billions of dollars of foreign assistance to Cairo since 1979.  The persistence of authoritarianism in Egypt contributes to the impression that through its unstinting support the U.S. government is condoning or even abetting the undemocratic and abusive practices of the Egyptian government. Far from acting as if democracy promotion in Egypt was a priority for the administration, senior officials have failed to speak out consistently on the need for reform when they have had the chance.  For example, President Obama said in September at the United Nations that it was time for every state to invite international election monitors to observe their elections, but he neglected to make a specific call to the Egyptian government to permit international monitors to enter the country, even when it was clear that the Egyptian authorities were adamantly rejecting his advice.  Similarly, when Secretary of State Clinton held a press conference in Washington D.C. with the Egyptian Foreign Minister just prior to the election on November 10 she failed to mention human rights or the need for the Egyptian government to do more to meet its own commitments to move forward with democracy and political reform. No one is suggesting that persuading the notoriously cautious President Mubarak to change his ways after 30 years in power will be easy, but at the same time, Egyptian society has changed enormously during his long years of rule and further change, including eventually a change in leader, is on the way.  Egypt’s undemocratic, increasingly corrupt and too often abusive government is ill suited meet the challenges of a young population increasingly connected to the wider world and all too aware of opportunities and freedoms that they are currently denied. Change is coming to Egypt and the question is whether the U.S. government can help its close regional ally to move forward with needed reforms, or whether it will continue to accommodate authoritarianism.  Continuing the status quo of soft-pedaling its message on the need for progress on democracy and human rights in Egypt does not work; is harmful to U.S. interests in Egypt and elsewhere since U.S. support for authoritarianism is unpopular; and is unsustainable since a society as large, complex and aspirational as Egypt’s cannot be ruled indefinitely by a system that is squandering its political legitimacy.


Published on December 20, 2010


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