The new American ambassador made her first major public appearance today, saying that Egypt is on the road to democracy despite the recent expansion of the emergency law, which severely curtails civil rights.
"We hope the law will be phased out – that is our position – but we see a democratic process on track under the leadership of the military council," said Ambassador Anne Patterson, speaking at an event sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo.
While her main focus at today's event was American-Egyptian economic cooperation and strengthening Egypt's economy, during the question and answer session she fielded queries on the emergency law, the tense Egypt-Israeli relations, public perception of the US in Egypt, and tension between the US and Egypt on US funding for non-governmental organizations – a matter of particular controversy.
“I have found in my short stay here ... that there is excessive focus on our past and present assistance programs," said Ambassador Patterson. "The future of Egypt lies with the private sector, with its ability to innovate, and with its commercial links to the broader world, including the US, and not with international assistance."
Patterson, a career diplomat who has previously served as ambassador to Pakistan, Colombia, and Ecuador, has stepped into her new role at a delicate time for the Arab world's most populous country and its relationship with the US. Washington's billions of dollars in aid to former President Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime angered average Egyptians, while its modest support for pro-democracy groups irked the country's military rulers.
When Patterson arrived in Egypt six weeks ago, the cover of a state-run magazine depicted her using a wad of American dollars to light a bomb in iconic Tahrir square, declaring, “The ambassador from hell lights a fire in Tahrir Square.”
She said today that the Egyptian public's negative public perception of the US was a "source of frustration" for the embassy. But she downplayed US-Egypt tensions, and refrained from criticizing the increasingly repressive measures wielded by the military council ruling Egypt until new elections are held.
Their rule “is going to be temporary," she said. "They want to get out of the business of governing and return to their duties.”
The generals sparked an outcry over the weekend when, after protesters attacked the Israeli embassy and forced its staff to flee, the interim military government announced that the hated emergency law would be broadened. The law was a major tool of repression under Mr. Mubarak and the protesters who took to the streets to oust him demanded it be removed. It gives the government broad leeway to crack down on civilians, making gatherings of more than five people illegal, allowing the government to detain citizens indefinitely without trial, and allowing the government to try them in state special security courts.
The State Department on Tuesday called for the council to lift the emergency law "immediately."
Patterson did not mention that demand, but said that the council had promised the law would be lifted before new elections, and “that’s what we hope will happen.” In March, the military council promised the law would be lifted by September, when parliamentary elections were due to be held. Those elections are now expected in November.
The best organized group heading into the elections is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that was repressed under Mubarak. While some have voiced concern about the rise of such Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring, Patterson reiterated the official US position that Washington will work with those committed to the democratic process. She said that attention focused on the Brotherhood, particularly in the US, is “excessive,” when the focus should instead be on elections and the economy.
In her prepared remarks, the ambassador focused on the economy, saying “successful democratic transitions not only rely on political reform, but also depend on broadening economic opportunity.” She outlined ways the US would help develop Egypt’s economy: by improving access to capital, helping workers to develop needed skills, encouraging regulatory reform, and encouraging more access to global markets for Egyptian exports.
She emphasized a move from focusing on US assistance programs to American support for Egypt’s private sector. The US has provided Egypt with about $1.5 billion annually since it signed the Camp David accords, becoming the first Arab country – and only the second to date – to make peace with Israel.
Now that peace is on shakier ground. On Sept. 9, hundreds of protesters stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo, breaking in and throwing documents from its windows. All but one of Israel’s diplomatic staff fled Egypt that night. Both governments “are anxious to move past the incidents of the past weekend and restore the relationship,” Patterson said.