US support for democracy and Egypt

Amy Hawthorne responds.

By , Staff writer

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    US-funded democracy promoters in the defendants' cage during their 2012 trial in Cairo for illegally promoting democracy in Egypt.
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I wrote a post a few days ago about democracy promotion and Egypt that bounced off a short paper Amy Hawthorne wrote for The Atlantic Council called "Getting Democracy Promotion Right in Egypt."

Ms. Hawthorne got in touch with me yesterday, arguing that Ihad  mischaracterized her views. After chatting with her and giving the paper a second read I have to concede the point. I got out of the cranky side of the bed that morning, in part because I've been exasperated by a lot of papers on Egypt that suggest the US needs to "do more" on democracy and human rights in Egypt without ever really being explicit about what concrete steps should be taken. Hawthorne took issue in particular with my suggestion that she was "waving the flag for the democratization industry in Egypt."

So let's set the record straight. She agrees that the US has been far too elections focused in its approach bringing about change abroad, and argues that the US should focus on criticizing Egypt's human rights record and should seek to find ways to make it easier to cut off some military aid (currently structured into contracts that make it almost impossible to close the spigot) as a first step towards changing the way the US has done business with Egyptian governments for decades. 

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She also suggests that public criticism of the rights record of Egypt - where the military-led government is in the midst of a sweeping crack down of all forms of political dissent - could yield tangible, if limited gains.

"(Some Egyptian leaders) really don't want critical attention focused on their human rights record," she says. "What do they really want from the international community? They want legitimization... at least some people in the Egyptian power structure are very sensitive to the country's international reputation." She says that if the US and leading EU country's withhold legitimization by say, refusing to praise the country's current political process and keeping the country's poor and deteriorating rights record front in center in their comments, that it "would not go unnoticed in Cairo."

She yields that grounds for optimism in Egypt in the short term are scant. Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has been leading the military government, received promotion to Egypt's highest rank yesterday at the same time as the country's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) said it approved of him running for president. 

In the current hyper-nationalist mood, with Sisi and army worship on the streets and those who dare to question government priorities (like the successful constitutional referendum earlier this month) often thrown in jail for the trouble, at this moment it's safe to say the presidential election will be more like a coronation than a fair competition.

But Hawthorne says she worries that the emerging conventional wisdom is the US has next-to-no leverage and that democracy promotion or a focus on human rights is a waste of time. "What I'm really, really worried about is that people are going to give up in Washington."

What should President Obama do about all of this? She says if she was in charge she'd order the National Security Council to set up a review of US military aid to Egypt, arguing that ongoing program - dating back to shortly after Anwar Sadat's peace agreement with Israel's Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978 - "is built on a status quo that in some ways no longer exists."

Her second priority would be to order the Pentagon to conduct a study at what the US gets militarily out of the arrangement. How vital are overflight rights granted by Egypt, for instance?

"We need to change the dynamic here. I think that we should look carefully at longstanding security interests in Egypt and review them in light of the current changing circumstances and look at the possibility of developing alternatives and contingency plans for some of these interests - for example, overflight rights. It would be an appropriate time to review that in a formal way and look at what other alternatives exist because maybe as Egypt is changing and the Middle East is changing we don’t need to be so dependent on Egypt as we have in the past."

She adds, though: "The review may not indicate that there are many other options to our current arrangement. But it behooves the US to avoid a situation where we’re kind of running on autopilot with regards to how we do business in Egypt. You don’t want to sent the message to them that we’re so dependent on them for security cooperation that they get a free pass on their human rights record. Just doing the review would send that message, the message that though our relationship with Egypt is very important that we’re constantly looking at options and contingencies."

I'm still skeptical that there's much good that can be done from Washington or any other foreign capital. There's also the matter of the frequent hypocrisy of US human rights rhetoric.

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