Former Egyptian military strongman Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is the favorite in next week’s presidential election, prolonging a debate in the Obama administration about whether ideals or interests should guide relations with the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Although the U.S. suspended some of Egypt’s $1.3 billion in annual military aid in October to prod the interim government to allow greater freedom, it still relies on Egypt to honor its peace treaty with Israel and give U.S. naval vessels priority access to the Suez Canal.
“There’s a lot of hesitancy about how to move forward with Egypt beyond the area of counter-terrorism operations and security, where there is ongoing coordination and strong core operations,” said Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.
In the May 26 and 27 election, Egypt’s 53 million eligible voters are expected to solidify the military’s grip on the country after three years of upheaval, the bitter fruit of the Arab Spring that ended the 30-year partnership between the U.S. and military-backed President Hosni Mubarak, and reshaped the modern Middle East.
“There are certain parts of the administration that would like to resume business as usual and would like to build a strong relationship with El-Sisi,” said Hawthorne, a former State Department official who worked on U.S. policy toward Egypt after the fall of Mubarak. In other parts of government, she said, there’s “a lack of desire for a warm embrace at this time unless the political situation significantly improves.”
Egypt’s security forces have cracked down on Islamists and political freedom since the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi last July. More than 1,000 members of Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, have died in clashes, and hundreds have been sentenced to death in a crackdown that some U.S. officials fear will create greater political instability.
The result, said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is that the U.S. has “no strategy on Egypt. To the extent that there’s a policy on Egypt, it’s the outcome of the two competing inclinations.”
Those competing desires — supporting American democratic values and protecting U.S. security interests — have long bedeviled Washington policy makers who’ve ricocheted between championing human rights and helping install friendly but repressive rulers such as Chilean President Augusto Pinochet and Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi.
The dilemma has been particularly acute for President Barack Obama. He chose Samantha Power, a fierce advocate for human rights and democracy, to represent the U.S. at the United Nations, and in 2009, when Obama introduced himself to the Arab world, he championed freedom, the rule of law, government transparency, and the right to vote.
“These are not just American ideas,” Obama said in an address at Cairo University. “They are human rights” that make “governments ultimately more stable, successful and secure.”
The aftermath of the Arab Spring in Egypt is testing those principles. U.S. law requires suspending aid to countries where the government has been deposed in a coup d’etat. While the Obama administration has refused to use the word, in October it halted the delivery of fighter jets and military gear and withheld $260 million in cash support for Egypt’s army.
Since Morsi’s ouster, the military, which El-Sisi once led, has overseen “possibly the most repressive period that Egypt has seen in the past 60 years,” said Mirette Mabrouk, founder of Egypt’s first independent English-language daily newspaper and a deputy director at the Atlantic Council.
Nevertheless, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month authorized the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters to help Egypt fight terrorism.
“He is certifying to Congress that Egypt is sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said in a statement on the move. “He urged Egypt to follow through on its commitment to transition to democracy — including by conducting free, fair, and transparent elections.”
The result, said Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, is that, “we’re in this never-never land where aid is suspended, but not eliminated.”
It’s a policy that “nobody in Egypt really understands, that is not likely to work in either of its goals, and is pushing the military to look for other suppliers, which could hurt U.S.-Egypt relations,” said Trager, who will be in Cairo to observe the elections.
As a result, an El-Sisi victory would be “an embarrassment” for the U.S. because it wants to maintain relations even though “what we’re beginning to see is real authoritarianism run amok,” said Ottaway. “The government is trying to stifle all independent voices, not just the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Many in the State Department are concerned that “by trying to stifle all independent voices, the regime in the end is going to play into the hands of the extremists,” she said.
Perhaps weary of the upheaval, Egyptians themselves are increasingly favoring stability over democracy, according to the Pew Research Organization, a non-partisan research group based in Washington. A poll held before the election found that 54 percent favor a stable government even if it isn’t fully democratic, Pew said in a report released yesterday.
Fifty-nine percent said in the survey that they still saw democracy as the best form of government, Pew said. That’s down from 66 percent in a comparable poll last year. The two surveys consisted of face-to-face interviews with 1,000 Egyptian adults and had error margins of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
In a recent visit to the country, the Atlantic Council’s Hawthorne found people pessimistic that El-Sisi will allow greater democracy. Instead, she said, “real politics will basically be over once he gains the presidency.”
“The Egyptian government is making it very difficult” for those in the administration who would like to restore close relations, said Ottaway. “So for the United States, this is a difficult time.”