Looking Forward: An Integrated Strategy for Supporting Democracy and Human Rights in Egypt
On Wednesday, May 20, 2009, POMED hosted a discussion of its new report, written by Gregory Aftandilian and titled “Looking Forward: An Integrated Strategy for Democracy and Human Rights in Egypt.” Aftandilian has worked as a foreign policy advisor for congressmen, the State Department, and the Defense Department. The discussants were Neil Hicks, International Policy Advisor to Human Rights First, Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, and Ambassador Edward S. Walker, Jr., former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and former Ambassador to Egypt. Stephen McInerney, Director of Advocacy at POMED, moderated.
McInerney noted there have been signs that the Obama Administration might downplay human rights and democracy in its foreign policy. And some say that with the Middle East peace process possibly resuming, democracy promotion in the region is too risky. But human rights and political freedom are of immediate concern to the Egyptian people, and as Obama noted during the 2008 campaign, a president must be able to handle multiple policy goals simultaneously. And many in the region see Egypt as a bellwether for U.S. policy and regional trends. McInerney said that, in private conversations, Obama Administration officials had repeatedly told him that the question is not whether they would support democracy in the Middle East but how to do so.
Aftandilian presented the major conclusions of the report. Egypt will remain strategically vital for U.S. policy in the region for the foreseeable future. He thus aimed to strike a balance between maintaining the bilateral relationship and pressing for reform. The report also recognizes that Egyptian authoritarianism will not disappear overnight, but that the status quo is not sustainable in the long run either. Although there is “democracy fatigue” in Washington, Obama himself has noted that supporting democracy is an important American tradition. Polls show that the Egyptian people want greater democracy and political freedom and there is increasing social unrest. Rather than let this discontent erupt, U.S. policymakers should make the case to the Egyptian government that gradual political reform would preserve Egypt’s stability in the long run.
The Obama administration must learn from the administration’s mistakes. The Freedom Agenda accomplished the worst of both worlds: Bush alienated the Mubarak regime by publicly “browbeating” it, and angered democratic activists by raising expectations for reform and then failing to deliver. Officials should be realistic: say that democracy is a top priority but not the top priority. Don’t personalize reform – the excessive attention on Ayman Nour, for example, may have undermined him as an opposition leader and even prolonged his imprisonment.
Many younger officials in Egypt’s government have called for political reform, and U.S. diplomats should engage the regime in a regular strategic dialogue on reform. The discussions should be kept private so as not to stoke nationalist resentment. The U.S. should press Egypt to expand freedom for opposition political parties and journalists, set up a constitutional presidential succession, and hold free and fair elections.
In real terms, U.S. aid to Egypt has gone down in the last decade, so it shouldn’t be cut further. But supplementary economic aid should be held out as a positive incentive for reform. The US should also support local NGOs that promote civil society; expand exchange visits between U.S. and Egyptian legislators (including both pro-government and opposition delegates) as well as between professional syndicates, such as lawyers’ organizations. The U.S. should also aid international NGOs that promote civic education and encourage more Egyptian students to study in the U.S.
Government agencies should meet regularly to improve interagency coordination on democracy and human rights policy. And US policymakers should meet regularly with their EU counterparts to coordinate political reform policy in the Middle East.
The U.S. must reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood, who have 20% of the seats in parliament and gave up violence three decades ago. After all, the U.S. deals with Islamist parties in Iraq, Yemen, and Morocco. Although direct dialogue with Brotherhood leaders may be political impossible in the short term, the U.S. can take quiet first steps, such as including Brotherhood-affiliated legislators in parliamentary exchanges.
Malinowski said the report was both principled and pragmatic and the proposed policy should be tried, while noting that it would be difficult to implement. (For instance, it’s hard to avoid personalizing the cause of reform, since the media tends to focus on heroic individual activists.) Obama’s speech in Egypt on June 4 will force the administration to take a clear stand on the role of democracy promotion in its policy toward Egypt and the Arab region.
Even during the Bush administration, Egyptian democracy activists sought out U.S. support. But to help them, the U.S. has to get its own human rights practices in order. When the reformer Saad Ibrahim met with Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, he told him that U.S. human rights abuses were “killing us” by making it impossible for activists to associate with America.
Obama is a pragmatist, not a revolutionary, but he can and must convince the U.S. and its allies that a realistic assessment of our interests calls for embracing human rights and democracy. The Middle East is a case in point – the U.S. reinforced the narrative of Al Qaeda through its uncritical support for dictators.
Ambassador Walker agreed that to be effective in pushing for democracy, the U.S. must improve its own human rights record. He also said that America has to be very careful not to provoke resentment by other governments, and that sometimes competing interest mean “we have to soften the punches” in pressing for reform. But America should visibly uphold its principles. Signs of progress in Egypt during the middle of the Bush administration disappeared as soon as the administration stopped talking about democracy. We need to have a clear and consistent policy across countries, and when we must treat countries differently, we must be explicit about why.
He noted that Mubarak is particularly sensitive about the Muslim Brotherhood. Although his embassy had low-level contact with parliamentarians, union leaders, and others indirectly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherood, the Mubarak regime would shut America out diplomatically if we formally engaged with the Brotherhood.
Walker said that NGO involvement is crucial, because there are limits on what government can say. He also approved of conditional supplemental aid, and said that transferring some funds from military assistance to economic aid is worth considering. Improving the rule of law, particularly police conduct, is essential to improving human rights.
Hicks agreed with Aftandilian that democracy promotion can’t be associated with regime change, because the latter undermines the regimes’ incentives to cooperate with the U.S. Patience is key. Democracy promotion should also focus on what Ibrahim calls “the infrastructure of democracy” – e.g., rule of law, media freedom, gender equality – not just elections. Promoting democracy by providing aid to the Egyptian governments can transform the “stand-off” between the government and civil society into a partnership for reform. That reform effort should revamp the National Human Rights Council so it is less dominated by the ruling NDP. The Arab Human Rights Charter should also be expanded into regional institutions for promoting human rights. The U.S. should also help Egypt write its report for the UN Human Rights Council review in a transparent and participatory way. And the U.S. should persuade Mubarak that he can gain prestige for himself and Egypt by voluntarily stepping down from the presidency by 2012. Indeed, he will be in a better position to avoid reprisals after he leaves office if he negotiates that transition now.
The panel was asked whether democracy in Egypt would harm U.S. interests by bringing the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Ambassador Walker said it was not clear-cut. The Muslim Brotherhood might be hostile to America if it came into power, but its ideology could evolve over time. In any case, he didn’t think the Brotherhood would win a majority in free elections. Aftandilian noted that the Egyptian government places the greatest restrictions on secular liberal parties, which might be more competitive against the Brotherhood if free elections were held. A member of the audience, Ahmed Salah, a co-founder of the Kifaya movement and a leader of the April 6th movement, said the “silent majority” in Egypt would support secular liberals if such parties had political space and showed they could materially improve citizens’ lives. On a related note, Malinowski said that U.S. officials should mention Islamist victims when discussing political repression, not just liberal or pro-American activists, in order to show that the U.S. supports the political rights of even those who disagree with us.
James Traub of the New York Times Magazine said the administration has demonstrated a Realist tendency by eschewing talk of human rights with strategically key countries like Russia, China, and Egypt. He asked what the Realist argument would be in favoring of pushing human rights issues with such countries. Malinowski said the administration’s approach was “not so black and white,” noting Obama had mentioned a specific incidence of political intimidation in talks with Russian President Medvedev. But the argument would be that it is not in America’s long-term interest to be seen in the Arab world as selling out Arabs’ rights for cynical reasons.