John Kerry's first visit to Cairo as Secretary of State this weekend laid bare some of the deep limitations of U.S. policy toward Egypt. Kerry, like many others, is struggling to find a bridge between supporting a staggering Egypt and pushing it in a more democratic direction.The administration is open to new thinking about the nature of Egypt's problems and possible U.S. responses. Over the last month, the Middle East Channel has been hosting an "Egypt Policy Challenge," asking leading analysts to offer their perspective on the nature of Egypt's ongoing political crisis and their advice for U.S. foreign policy. Today, we are pleased to announce the release of The Egypt Policy Challenge as a free PDF collection in the POMEPS Briefs series - download it today!
The challenge was framed around the ways in which Washington might help Egypt become more democratic. A significant portion of the policy, academic, and activist community likely disagrees with either the goal of democratizing Egypt, the assumption that the United States actually wants democracy in Egypt, or the idea that the United States has any useful role to play in accomplishing such a goal. A significant faction within the broader policy community likely believes that Hosni Mubarak's Egypt was better for American interests than what has followed, particularly given intense suspicion about the Muslim Brotherhood and the widespread circulation of anti-American attitudes across the Egyptian political arena. Many others do support the goal of democracy in Egypt, but fundamentally reject the conceit that the United States government shares that goal.
While those critical views deserve attention and discussion on their own merits, the focus of this particular Egypt policy challenge was more limited: if the United States. does want to support a democratic transition, then what can and should it do?
The new administration is clearly still in evaluation mode, as Kerry repeatedly emphasized during his trip. It is trying to assess the real intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi's capacity to govern as well as the opposition's critiques of the emerging system. It is trying to determine whether the parliamentary elections slated to begin in April can be a meaningful step toward building real democratic institutions. It is desperate to find some way to help prevent economic collapse and to stop the dangerous degradation of public security.
He made only cautious moves on this first trip. He announced $250 million in immediate economic assistance, including a new $60 million Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund. He urged the opposition to take part in the upcoming elections and the government to ensure that they would be free and fair. He said many of the right things about U.S. priorities, pushing President Mohamed Morsi to compromise and the opposition to participate in the elections. His statement on the trip made clear that
"more hard work and compromise will be required to restore unity, political stability and economic health to Egypt. The upcoming parliamentary elections are a particularly critical step in Egypt's democratic transition. We spoke in depth about the need to ensure they are free, fair and transparent. We also discussed the need for reform in the police sector, protection for non-governmental organizations, and the importance of advancing the rights and freedoms of all Egyptians under the law -- men and women, and people of all faiths."
Few found this rhetoric or the new U.S. commitments satisfying, of course. The hotly polarized political environment in Egypt made such a balancing act excruciatingly difficult, as all sides hope for a more explicit endorsement of their position and bitterly resent anything which does not fully reflect their narrative. But for all the frustration, Kerry was right to make Egypt one of his first stops. This is a good moment for the U.S. to take stock of what is happening in Egypt: Has it diagnosed Egyptian politics correctly? Is it offering useful advice and material support? Is it communicating its policy effectively?
The free PDF The Egypt Policy Challenge collects some of the best recent analyses and recommendations on these difficult questions. The contributors include Holger Albrecht, Steven Cook, Michael Wahid Hanna, H.A. Hellyer, Ellis Goldberg, Hani Sabra, Tamara Wittes, Elijah Zarwan and more. Download it today!