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The Egypt Policy Advice Challenge

I've had some great feedback already on this week's FP column, What We Talk About When We Talk about Supporting Egyptian Democracy (Alt-T). I'm not going to summarize the rather lengthy article here -- just go read it, please! When you're done come on back, because I'd like to throw out a real, not rhetorical, challenge to those who want the United States to effectively support democracy in Egypt (that's not to deny the legitimacy of those who don't think we should be promoting democracy there for one reason or another -- that's just not today's question).  

Before I get to the challenge, one quick response to an objection raised by my right honorable friends Michael Wahid Hanna and Issandr el-Amrani. They argue that whatever it might have said at other times, the Obama administration badly misplayed its response to Morsi's November 22 power grab. I don't really dispute their read of the initial response -- I think the administration was still primarily focused on Gaza at that point and didn't catch the significance of Morsi's domestic move quickly enough. But I don't think that the overall trend of two years can be judged by one day, and would continue to argue that the administration has been far more consistent in its public and private support for Egyptian democracy than is generally remembered. But still, point taken -- that was not part of my highlight reel. 

Okay, now to the challenge. I believe that most of the academic and policy community in Washington seriously wants to support democacy in Egypt, believes it to be both normatively valuable and important to American national interests, and thinks that the United States has not done enough to support it. That same general description would have applied to pretty much any point in the last twenty years, regardless of the U.S. administration or Egypt's political conditions.  (The turmoil of the last two years and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have driven at least some to rethink the goal of democracy, but again that's a different argument).   

Most of the disagreements within this community, for better or for worse, are about how to promote such democracy. But I'm not sure that the debate about means has quite kept up with the dizzying changes of the last two years. As I point out in the column, we still mostly hear about the same old chestnuts: more pro-democracy rhetoric, more funding for civil society and democracy programs, more conditionality on military aid or financial assistance. What seems to be missing is genuinely new thinking about what "getting serious" about democracy would actually mean concretely in the current environment. How do you support democracy while opposing Muslim Brotherhood victories? How do you support liberal movements or parties without undermining their electoral prospects? Does conditionality make sense at a time when the Egyptian economy is collapsing?  

So here's the challenge.  Below are six specific questions about how the U.S. should go about supporting Egyptian democracy. They are meant as questions, not answers -- I don't believe that anyone, including me, has fully or persuasively answered most of them. I'm not looking for you to agree with me (not that anyone would!) -- I'm looking for real debate and good new ideas. You don't need to answer all of them or write fully developed articles, but do try to think beyond the familiar answers that we can all recite by heart. Next week, I'll write up and link to the responses if I get enough useful feedback. And also feel free to pose new questions which you'd like to see addressed. 

Without further ado, the questions:

1. The Islamists. It is frequently argued that the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology and organization renders it essentially incompatible with true democracy. The Brotherhood won Egypt's post-transitional parliamentary and presidential elections, however, and is likely to perform well in (if not win) future elections. How would you propose dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood's participation in democratic elections? Should the United States call for barring the Muslim Brotherhood from fielding candidates or refuse to deal with its members if they do take office? If not, then how would you propose dealing with the reality or prospect of their winning free and fair elections? 

2. Supporting Liberals. Most U.S. policy advocates would like to support liberal trends in civil society and in the political arena. The current Egyptian political arena (including many leftist activists) is quite hostile to foreign interference in general and to the United States in particular, however, and is likely to continue to be so for at least the next few years. Even if the case against U.S. democracy NGOs were to be thankfully resolved, it is unlikely that they will be able to operate in any significant capacity in the near future. Given this, how do you think that the United States could most effectively support liberal or otherwise sympathetic political trends or groups? Should the United States openly support such groups, and if so what do you think the effects would be inside of Egypt? Should the United States attempt to quietly or covertly support them? If so, do you think this is feasible in Egypt's current media environment, and what do you think the effects would be of exposure of such support? Do such groups in fact want U.S. funding and/or support, and would it actually help them win elections?  

3. The Process. One alternative to supporting liberals or opposing the Muslim Brotherhood is to focus on the democratic process and institutions. Support for the abstract principle of democracy, however, is often taken as support for the winners, so that "backing democracy" is perceived as "backing Morsi." Do you believe that the MB's current dominance of Egyptian institutions means that seemingly neutral support for the democratic process is actually de facto support for Islamist rule? Is there some way which the U.S. might support the democratic process which would not have that effect? What, precisely, would that be? Most agree that elections are not enough, and that effective inclusion and respect for minorities and core human rights lie at the heart of any real democracy. How, specifically, could the United States most effectively push for such inclusion and rights? 

4. Conditionality on military aid is often seen as the key mechanism for influencing the Egyptian political system. Does it still make sense to focus on conditionality for military assistance now that the SCAF has transferred power to a civilian government? Would conditioning military aid under the current political alignment mean weakening the military relative to the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus be counter-productive? How credible and effective would such conditionality be given what we know about how military aid to Egypt actually funds U.S. corporations and about how conditionality will always include issues related to the Camp David Treaty as well as to democracy and human rights?

5. Conditionality on economic assistance, whether bilateral or through the IMF and World Bank, is also often seen as a key point of leverage. Does the intensity of Egypt's current economic crisis make this the wrong time to talk about conditionality, given the urgent need to stabilize the situation? Or does the crisis make this the perfect time to take advantage of the desperation of Egyptian leaders for external support? 

6. Engagement. There is a broad consensus that the United States has been ineffective at communicating its support for democracy to the Egyptian public and that it should do more to engage broadly across the Egyptian public. What, specifically, could the United States do to engage more effectively? With whom should it speak, what should it talk about, and what policies should be changed which would make the engagement more effective with a broad cross-section of the Egyptian public?   

My answers to at least some of these questions are here, but as I said I'm really looking for new, specific ideas here. I'm pretty sure that there will be a highly interested audience within the government as well as the policy community for any good new ideas about these questions. Please email me your thoughts and comments, or a link to any you post at your own outlets, and if I get enough responses by early next week then I will write them up. So fire away!

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