Egypt faces a critical electoral cycle over the next year, with parliamentary elections in November and a presidential election in the fall of 2011. An important ally for the United States and once a leader of the Arab world, Egypt’s elections could have broad implications for the bilateral relationship and U.S. interests in the region.
In a video Q&A, Michele Dunne looks at the history of U.S.–Egypt relations and explains how the United States can and should support political reform in Egypt. “The United States needs to find a way to show it still wants to work with the Egyptian government on the issues the two have always cooperated on—regional peace, stability, military issues, and counterterrorism—but Washington also needs to clearly support Egyptian demands for improved human rights and greater political freedom.”
What is the history of the bilateral relationship?
The United States has recognized the strategic importance of Egypt back to the beginning of American involvement in the Middle East, which essentially began after World War II. It was not always easy for the United States to have a good relationship with Egypt—although the United States wanted to back in the 1950s and 1960s when Gamel Abdel Nasser was president—as there were a lot of differences between the United States and Egypt and how they saw the region. But in the mid-1970s, when President Anwar Sadat undertook his initiative to change the strategic orientation of Egypt and to make peace with Israel, the United States and Egypt began to develop a very close relationship that endures through today.
Since the late 1970s, the two pillars of the U.S.–Egyptian relationship have been cooperation on regional affairs—that is, diplomatic, military, and strategic cooperation to promote peace and stability in the Middle East—and the other pillar has been the development of Egypt itself, particularly economic development. The United States has devoted tens of billions of dollars over the last 30 years to promoting the economic development of Egypt, as well as modernizing the Egyptian military.
In the last ten years or so, there has been a new element in the U.S.–Egyptian relationship, and that has been American interest in development of the Egyptian political system and human rights in Egypt. Increasingly in the past decade, there have been calls from Egyptian society for political reform and human rights improvements. The United States has become more sensitive to that, and also sees this type of progress being directly linked to the kind of economic prosperity that Egypt would like to achieve.
What is Washington's current approach to Egypt?
When President Obama took office in January 2009, he wanted to improve bilateral relations with a number of Arab and Muslim countries—Egypt being one of them. There was some tension between President Mubarak and President George W. Bush over regional policies, especially the invasion of Iraq, and also over U.S. policy toward Egyptian domestic affairs—meaning that Bush had taken an increasing interest in the need for political reform and human rights improvements inside of Egypt.
Obama initially backed away from that and returned to seeing Egypt as a peace process partner, and really tried to improve state-to-state relations. In the second year of the Obama presidency, however, domestic affairs inside Egypt have moved in such a direction that the Obama administration had to start paying more attention to them. There’s a looming succession crisis in Egypt, there are important parliamentary and presidential elections coming, and the Obama administration has started to pay more attention to those things.
Notably, in May of 2010, the Obama administration issued a pretty stiff protest when the Egyptian government renewed the state of emergency, which has been in effect since 1981 and significantly curbs civil liberties inside Egypt. President Mubarak had promised to lift it but chose to renew it instead, and the Obama administration started taking an interest. Also, in the most recent visit of President Mubarak in September 2010, President Obama did raise with him issues related to human rights and free elections in Egypt and that was publicly announced.
Why is Egypt strategically important to the United States?
Geographically, Egypt occupies an important strategic position on a land bridge between Africa and Asia. It has long coasts on the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and the Suez Canal links the two. Egypt controls all of these, so any outside power with significant interests in the Middle East would want good relations and military cooperation with Egypt.
Egypt has also played an important role historically in the politics and culture of the entire Middle East. These days, there is a lot of talk about the “diminished influence” of Egypt—that it’s not as influential in Arab politics as it once was—and that is true, but what’s interesting to note is that while the Egyptian government is less influential than it once was, Egyptian society continues to be influential. The trends that we see in Egyptian civil society and Egyptian opposition movements are often imitated elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world—like the extensive use of social media by the political opposition. In a sense, Egypt as a nation and the Egyptian people continue to be quite influential.
The United States relies on Egypt for cooperation in a number of different spheres. In the diplomatic arena, Egypt is very much a player in terms of the Arab–Israeli peace process. It has played a key role as a channel to Palestinians—even Palestinians with whom the United States was not speaking, like Hamas now or at times in the past the PLO and Yassir Arafat. The United States and Egypt generally see pretty much eye-to-eye on the Palestinian issue, and what should happen in Gaza. Egypt plays something of a convening role in the region. It has always dominated the Arab League, which has been important recently in bolstering Palestinian President Abbas and his role in the peace process and his willingness to negotiate directly with Israel.
U.S.–Egyptian military cooperation and inter-operability is also quite important to the United States. Because of their relationship with Egypt, the United States has easy transit rights to the Suez Canal for military and other vessels and has overflight and refueling rights for military operations in the area. All of that is quite important and valuable to the United States.
How can the United States support political reform in Egypt?
Political reform and democratization in Egypt are going to happen—or not happen—primarily because of what Egyptians do. The United States is an outside actor here. Still, the United States has significant influence and it’s not credible for the United States to pretend that is totally neutral on these questions.
If the United States doesn’t state clearly that it supports democratization and improved human rights in Egypt, then the assumption by Egyptians automatically is that the United States stands against reform and stands with a government that wants to inhibit it. This is because of the very close relationship the United States has with the Egyptian government and the large assistance package that the United States delivers every year.
How the United States can be most effective is to support the demands that are arising from Egyptian civil society itself and not come in with an outside list of demands. In recent years, an agenda has clearly developed in Egypt, from part of Egyptian society and peaceful opposition movements, asking for certain changes in the law, the constitution, and in practice, and the United States can make clear, through public statements, private engagement with the Egyptian government, and its assistance programs that it supports these sort of demands.
What is the significance of Egypt's parliamentary and presidential elections?
There are two important questions to ask regarding the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Egypt. For the parliamentary elections, the question is this: Is Egypt moving towards freer, fairer, more competitive elections? The Egyptian government and President Mubarak have said over the years that “Egypt is on its own path to democratization, and that it might be slow but we need to move at our own pace.” So the question now is to look at the 2010 parliamentary elections and, in a sense, measure them against previous parliamentary elections in 2005, 2000, and so forth. Is there progress?
There are many calls within Egypt’s civil society and from the opposition for changes that would make elections freer and fairer and there are a number of steps the Egyptian government can take—even without changing the laws—that would constitute meaningful progress. These include lifting the provisions of the emergency law that prohibit free assembly and campaigning; keeping security forces away from polling places because coercion and intimidation of voters has been a significant problem in previous elections; and allowing meaningful monitoring of the elections—both by Egyptian civil society monitors and also by international observers. Allowing international observers would be an important step forward for Egypt in the parliamentary elections.
The important question to ask about the 2011 presidential election in Egypt is whether Egypt will move away from the model it has had for the past 50 years of an pharaonic presidency—a military leader who’s in office for life—or move instead to a presidency that is held by a civilian with some limits—both on the time he or she can remain in office and limits on his or her powers.
Some of the important steps to watch for in the presidential election then are whether presidential term limits are reestablished. They existed once in the Egyptian constitution, but they were removed. There are widespread calls for reinstituting them now. Also, will the steps for eligibility to get on the presidential ballot in Egypt be loosened somewhat. They are extremely restrictive now, and they’ve basically been set up to prevent any effective competition to the ruling party.
How should American policy makers approach the upcoming electoral cycle in Egypt?
This is potentially a critical moment in Egypt’s political history and in U.S.–Egyptian relations. We have the 30-year presidency of Hosni Mubarak most likely drawing to a close very soon, and there is rising discontent with the government in Egyptian society, which expresses itself in all kinds of ways. And we have a rising opposition movement in Egypt. It is still weak, but it is definitely stronger than it has been and at times it acts more cohesively than it has in the past.
The United States really has to position itself carefully now. The United States has to find a way to show it still wants to work with the Egyptian government on the issues we have always cooperated on—regional peace, stability, military cooperation, counterterrorism cooperation—but we also want to clearly support the demands of the Egyptian people for improved human rights and greater political freedom.
How can the United States do that? One of the most important things to do is to simply show interest—whether it is by statements from the U.S. officials, Congressional hearings, Congressional resolutions, etc.—that the United States is following what is going on in Egypt. And also to use all the forms of influence that it has—contacts with Egyptian government officials behind the scenes, assistance programs, and so forth—to urge the Egyptian government to move ahead and meet the demands that are coming from Egypt’s society for change.
One concrete thing the United States can do right now is to encourage the participation of credible international observers in the presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt. Egypt has never agreed to that thus far, but it is becoming a norm globally—and also in the Middle East—that countries holding elections invite international observers if they want to show that they are credible. The United States should urge the Egyptian government to agree to observers and urge American organizations to apply to be observers this year.