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At the outset of 2011, the political scene in Egypt appears bleak. Egyptians began the new year with tragedy: a brutal bomb attack on an Alexandria church during New Year’s mass exacerbated already rising sectarian tensions. Meanwhile, Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections confirmed fears that the Egyptian government has no interest in reform, but is instead closing political space ahead of this year’s presidential elections and a looming leadership transition. After years of half-hearted attempts by two U.S. administrations to promote democratic reform and human rights in Egypt, these unabashedly fraudulent elections clearly show that such efforts have been insufficient. In addition, the recent violence and ensuing anger towards the Egyptian government demonstrate its inability to maintain stability through repression, underscoring the need for the United States to readjust its democracy promotion efforts in the context of the broader bilateral relationship.
- Endorse more explicitly goals widely shared by the Egyptian opposition, such as the National Association for Change’s six-point list for reform. The post-election political climate has provided an opportunity for the movement led by Mohammed ElBaradei to help unify the opposition. For more than a decade, a credible opposition force has been absent in Egypt. While Washington should refrain from backing specific candidates and parties, it should encourage the opening of political space that would allow the formation of an effective opposition alliance. Such an alliance may in time present a coherent proposal for reform – even if it includes political forces like Islamists and the far left who are hostile to U.S. foreign policy.
- Downgrade relations with the Egyptian People’s Assembly in recognition of its lack of legitimacy after the last election. This could range from ceasing USAID projects with the People’s Assembly to not scheduling meetings between U.S. and Egyptian parliamentary representatives. Meetings with NDP personnel can be arranged in any case in their capacity as party officials rather than elected officials.
- Adopt a policy of meeting regularly with all nonviolent opposition voices including movements not officially sanctioned by the Egyptian government. Until now, the Embassy has most often met with members of official opposition parties and, in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, has generally met only with leaders in their capacity as elected members of parliament. U.S. visitors including congressional delegations should also be encouraged to meet with representatives of any credible opposition, and especially with independent leaders such as Mohammed ElBaradei. The status of Mr. ElBaradei as a Nobel Prize winner also provides a ready-made pretext for a meeting with fellow laureate President Obama.
- Stress to the government of Egypt the importance of addressing key concerns of the Coptic community, including the passage of a long awaited unified law on places of worship. This law would give Christians the same rights to build and repair churches that the Muslim majority currently enjoys with regard to mosques. Although President Obama was quick to condemn the Alexandria bombing and the U.S. deserves credit for consistently stressing its concerns with regard to sectarian issues, the recent escalation highlights the need for concrete steps by the Egyptian government.
Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and analyst. His work regularly appears in The Economist, Foreign Policy, The National, and other publications. He blogs at The Arabist.