Will spike of violence in Egypt push US to act more forcefully?

Competing US demands for democracy and stability in Egypt have led to a stand-back policy approach. But a surge of deadly violence and signals from the Egyptian military may change all that.

Two Egyptian protesters throw rocks toward Egyptian riot police in Cairo, Monday.

As violent protests aimed at the Egyptian military’s hold on power continued Monday, the United States finds itself in the difficult position of weighing its demands for democracy against its competing interest in Egypt’s stability.

Complicating the US approach is the fact that, unlike the movement that deposed President Hosni Mubarak in February, the protests that started Friday have seen significant participation from – and to some extent have been led by – Egypt’s largest religious political force, the Muslim Brotherhood.

For the most part US officials have remained quiet, at least publicly, on the pace of Egypt’s political transition and in particular on the most recent protests. But with Egyptians dying once again in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – at least 24 people have died in the surge in violence, according to press reports – the Obama administration may be forced out of its stand-back approach.

Already the stance Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton assumed in a recent speech on global democratization movements was tagged by aides as a warning most specifically to Egypt’s military rulers – designated after Mr. Mubarak’s fall as a transitional leadership – against unelected officials clinging to power.

In a Nov. 7 speech to the national Democratic Institute in Washington, Secretary Clinton cautioned against a two-speed policy that favors short-term stability while envisioning long-term realization of democratic reform.

“We cannot have one set of policies to advance security in the here-and-now and another to promote democracy in a long run that never quite arrives,” she said.

The Egyptian protests were sparked by growing frustration over signs that the ruling military leadership – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF – plans to hold on to power indefinitely. The SCAF has said it would relinquish power once presidential elections are held, but it has remained vague on timing, suggesting a presidential vote might not take place until 2013.

Egyptians are set to vote in the country’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections next week, but the resurgence of protests reflects a waning hope that those elections will mark the first step toward a sure and timely transition to democracy. The military-appointed cabinet offered to resign Monday, bowing to protesters' demands, but it was not clear whether the military would accept that offer or what impact it would have on the election plans.

The US has regular contact with Egypt’s military rulers, with many of the country’s top officers having trained in the US. But the US is also working with many of Egypt’s top pro-democracy forces and is known to have maintained contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood, while perhaps Egypt’s single most potent political force, is not the country’s most extreme Islamist movement. The US is hoping to encourage the more moderate tendencies in an upsurge in religious political forces.

And even as it works to encourage a prompt political transition in Egypt, the administration is also mindful that any perception on the part of the public that the US was employing its heavy hand to steer events could backfire.

But some American experts on Egypt are beginning to criticize the Obama administration for what to them looks like accommodation of the military’s hold on power in the interest of Egypt’s stability and friendliness towards the US. And they are calling on Congress to use its leverage over US foreign policy – its control of the purse strings – to send a clear message to Egypt’s military rulers.

In a Nov. 17 statement the Working Group on Egypt called on Congress to set conditions for continuing some $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, saying that in many ways the country’s military rulers have continued the repressive measures of the Mubarak era.

The Working Group, a collection of Middle East experts who have been advising US policy makers on Egypt since before the Arab Spring, said Congress should require the secretary of State to certify that the government of Egypt has held “free and fair elections” and is implementing policies protecting basic human and political rights.

The statement said Congress should act in light of the Obama administration’s “stated reluctance to touch the $1.3 billion in military aid it gives to Egypt every year.”

During his first visit to Egypt since moving from the helm of the CIA to the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in early October that he had encouraged the military rulers to move forward on a true political transition – including the lifting of a much-hated state-of-emergency law that dates for before Mubarak’s departure.

But Secretary Panetta also offered an over-all positive report on what he saw and heard from the military leaders. “I really do have full confidence in the process that the Egyptian military is overseeing,” he said, “I think they’re making good progress.”

Clinton offered a slightly different take on the administration’s perspective in her Nov. 7 speech.

“If, over time, the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials,” she said, “they will have planted the seeds for future unrest, and Egyptians will have missed a historic opportunity.”

That warning appears now to have been prescient, given the resurgence of unrest in Egypt. One question now will be whether the renewed turmoil prompts the US to favor stability or to come out more forcefully for the forces of political transition in Egypt.

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