Now is not the time to push Egypt's military on democratic elections?

So says President Obama's State Department, arguing that conditions should not be put on aid to Egypt.

Amr Nabil/AP
An Egyptian shouts slogans as he demands the end of Egypt's ruling military council at Tahrir Square, in Cairo, on Sunday, during the first day of Islamic Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice.

Egypt's military rulers have been swiftly moving out of benefit-of-the-doubt territory.

They've arrested bloggers and activists, jailed civilians with military trials for holding the wrong political opinions, and taken steps to protect their own immunity from civilian oversight when a new Egyptian constitution is written. 

The latest flap is over a set of proposed "constitutional principles" that the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's current military rulers, is urging be adopted before parliamentary elections are held. Those are scheduled to start this month. Early drafts sought to place the military's budget and behavior beyond the reach of civilian oversight. They also sought to give Egypt's "executive" (which will be the military, at least until presidential elections are held, probably in 2013) a lot of power to intervene in the constitution-writing process, and tried to impose the conditions under which the document could be drafted, something that would ordinarily fall to an elected parliament.

While the proposed document is being reworked, the idea of an Egyptian military willing to get out of the way and let civilian politicians chart Egypt's future has been taking a lot of knocks.

These worrying signs have been responded to by some in Congress, who have proposed making America's annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt conditional on a transition to democracy. President Obama's State Department, however, is having none of it.

Last week Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, told a meeting at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank that he once worked for, that "the administration believes that putting conditions on our assistance to Egypt is the wrong approach, and Secretary Clinton has made this point strongly. Egypt is a pivotal country in the Middle East and a long-time partner of the United States. We have continued to rely on Egypt to support and advance US interests in the region, including peace with Israel, confronting Iranian ambitions, interdicting smugglers, and supporting Iraq ... conditioning assistance risks putting our relations with Egypt in a contentious place at the worst possible moment."

US policymakers have, for years, made the argument that "now" is a bad time to hold Egypt's military responsible for human rights abuses or democratic change. But right now would appear to be a moment when such gestures could do the most good. Hosni Mubarak is gone; the country is groping towards what it hopes is a better future. While the autocratic tendencies of Egypt's military aren't going to vanish in response to anything the US Congress does, signals that there are costs associated with denying a true democratic change would likely affect their own calculations.

Issandr El Amrani, I think correctly, points out that Egypt is almost never dealt with by the US outside of the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something that has provided cover for the country's military rulers to do pretty much what they want domestically for decades. Mr. Shapiro's remarks, for instance, were delivered in the context of a conference titled "On Ensuring Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge."

"Oddly, both the criticism of aid to Egypt in Congress and support for it in the administration has largely been about Israel," Mr. Amrani writes. "On the one hand, congresspeople wanted to pressure Egypt to do more on the Gaza/Hamas issue, and on the other the administration did not want to sever military aid it views as underwriting the trilateral relationship created by Camp David. A secondary concern was the late Mubarak regime's autocratic turn and, now, SCAF's increasingly autocratic and incompetent leadership."

His recommendation has the virtues of being easy to understand,and in line with principles both this US administration and its predecessors say they support: "On Egypt, specifically, I tend to think the aid formula should be reworked bilaterally and with a simple condition attached: no transition to civilian rule, no military aid."

The Obama administration, following a US policy of decades, does not appear to agree.

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