US Dances Around Stance on Democracy in Egypt
US Dances Around Stance on Democracy in Egypt
Saturday, April 10,2010 22:20
By Matt Bradley

The US has spent the past three decades supporting the regime of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, whose reign has been marked by allegations of human rights abuses and sweeping political disenfranchisement, notes Matt Bradley.

For a moment on Sunday, Egyptian politics looked a little bit like an awkward game of musical chairs.

The trouble started during Easter mass at Cairo’s main Coptic Christian cathedral when Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a possible presidential contender, was seated next to Margaret Scobey, the US ambassador to Egypt. As services began under the unblinking cameras of satellite news stations, church officials stepped in to move Mr ElBaradei to a different pew. The church apparently hoped to diminish perceptions that the popular new politician was in league with the United States – a damaging stigma for any Egyptian public figure.

The otherwise mundane seating dispute made front-page headlines in several Egyptian newspapers the following day. For many observers, the navel-gazing press coverage revealed that, as Egyptians consider their own political future, many are wondering where Egypt’s most powerful western ally will be sitting when the music stops.

The question is as essential to Egypt’s political future as the answer is murky. Mr ElBaradei’s National Association for Change has pit his pro-democracy ideology against an autocratic regime that receives considerable US support despite a record on governance that would seem to contravene some of America’s declared principles.

“It is the Egyptian voters who will choose their next president. Our job as a government is certainly not to take sides or to weigh in on one candidate or another,” Ms Scobey said in an e-mail to The National on Wednesday. “What we want to see is a fair, open, transparent process.”

Since Mr ElBaradei’s return to Egypt from Vienna in February, the Egyptian group whose voice has emerged as the loudest champion of political change has been his National Association for Change. For perhaps the first time in Egyptian history, the association has united disparate opposition groups and leading intellectuals towards amending Egypt’s constitution to allow for greater political participation and accountability.

Such goals are hard to ignore for a country such as the United States, whose previous presidential administration made the promotion of democracy a key platform of its Middle East policy. But despite such lofty language, the US has spent the past three decades supporting the regime of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, whose reign has been marked by allegations of human rights abuses and sweeping political disenfranchisement. During the leadership of the now-ailing Mr Mubarak, 81, the United States has given Egypt more than US$50 billion (Dh184bn) in military and economic aid to both ensure stability and maintain Egypt’s unpopular diplomatic ties with Israel.

“There’s always sympathy. There’s always a kind of ‘yes, in an ideal world we would like to see reform in Egypt, we would like to see democratisation, we would like to see openness’,” said Shadi Hamid, the deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center.

American policy towards Egypt in particular, and the Middle East in general, is an “utter contradiction”, he said. “Regardless of what people feel individually, this administration is operating under what it considers to be regional constraints. It operates under a hierarchy, and Egyptian democracy is very low on that hierarchy.”

Despite Mr ElBaradei’s fresh perspective on Egyptian politics, the stakes for the US remain too high for it to gamble on a politician whose chances of amending the constitution, much less winning a presidential election, are slim, said Emad Gad, a political analyst at the semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“I think the American administration doesn’t want to change this regime. They want to reform it.”