On May 11, the Egyptian government extended the near permanent State of Emergency for a further two years, prolonging the suspension of basic political freedoms for all Egyptians. In addition, it is painfully clear – and has been ever since the Egyptian government rammed through constitutional amendments stripping the Judiciary of powers to supervise the electoral process in 2007 – that elections that begin this month with the upper house of parliament, move on to the larger People’s Assembly in October and culminate with the presidential elections in 2011, will be less free and fair than those held in 2005. Civil unrest and popular protests are on the rise, and protesters are routinely beaten into silence by security forces with scant regard for legal niceties or basic rights. Incidents of sectarian violence are also on the rise and Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority is increasingly vulnerable to religiously motivated acts of violence.
Last week, the Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy outlined an effort to combat such unrest though support for basic rights and freedoms and put forth a broader narrative of securing U.S. interests through strengthening multilateral institutions and building stronger relationships with partners and allies. This may well be a more palatable framework for the United States government to exert positive influence abroad than the sometimes abrasive unilateralism of its predecessor, but the administration will face the challenge of producing results early, especially in the broader Middle East, where cynicism about U.S. claims to be acting to support human rights and democracy runs deep, and most imminently in Egypt as it deals with the momentous issues surrounding succession.
Egyptian politics entered a state of fretful paralysis several years ago when President Mubarak’s health began to weaken and the question of succession became the major preoccupation of Egypt’s political classes. In the shadow of the momentous question of who will guide the ship of state when the 30 year president, third in an unbroken line of military autocrats dating back to the 1952 revolution, steps aside, political reform and the advancement of human rights and democracy has little chance. In the pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty about what will happen after Egypt’s longest serving ruler since Muhammad Ali Pasha steps aside, Egypt’s rulers have become resistant to political reform that might loosen the ruling elite’s grip on power.
The choice confronting the Obama administration is clear. One option is to continue to support what Steven A. Cook has called "authoritarian stability" in Egypt. This has been the settled U.S. policy towards Egypt since President Sadat brought Egypt into the western camp in 1979. The problems with this approach have been apparent for years. Egypt’s lack of political reform has led to decline and mounting social problems. Persistent regional instability and the Egyptian government’s adeptness at making itself useful to the United States in managing regional crises have shielded the Cairo government from sustained U.S. pressure to make good on its always postponed promises to move forward with reform.
After 9/11, the Bush administration faced up to the reality that authoritarian stability was not only bad for Egypt, but also came with a price that could even include encouraging extremists to attack the United States. The Bush administration confronted the problem head on and proclaimed a new approach that would put advancing democracy and freedom in Egypt and the other countries of the region as a national security priority of the United States. Secretary of State Rice delivered a devastating critique of authoritarian stability theory in Cairo, and this view was expressed by other spokespeople and in policy documents, notably the National Security Strategy of the United States from March 2006.
In the final two years of the Bush administration, democracy and human rights promotion efforts were overtaken by events. The Egyptian government again demonstrated its usefulness to U.S. policy imperatives like containing intra-Palestinian violence or stabilizing Iraq, and was able to play its perennial trump card, through the carefully stage-managed results of the 2005 parliamentary elections: that the only alternative to the authoritarianism you know is an empowered Muslim Brotherhood you certainly will not like.
President Bush’s Freedom Agenda died a death unacknowledged by its authors, but President Obama has returned to some of the same themes, albeit it in a more conciliatory tone, in his Cairo remarks and other speeches setting out this administration’s policies for promoting human rights and democracy abroad. Not only did President Obama pledge to support human rights everywhere, he also explained why this was important – governments that promote and protect human rights are "more stable, successful and secure."
Unless the Obama administration finds a way to use the succession from thirty years of rule by President Mubarak as an opportunity to place U.S. relations with Egypt on a different footing, such that they contribute to genuine political reform, greater democracy and improved respect for human rights over time, then by the administration’s own arguments, Egypt will be at risk of greater instability, economic decline and greater insecurity. Moreover, a failure to rise to the challenge at such a pivotal moment in a key bi-lateral relationship would not go unnoticed and would undermine one of the central pillars of the new National Security Strategy before its ink is dry on the page.