Obama NSC meets with Egypt democracy advocates

Obama NSC meets with Egypt democracy advocates

Top Obama National Security Council officials met Tuesday with a bipartisan group of Washington foreign policy experts who advocate that the United States push for more free and fair Egyptian elections.

The National Security Council’s top two senior Middle East officials Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro, as well as the NSC’s top human rights and development/democracy officials Samantha Power and Gayle Smith attended the meeting on the Obama administration side, meeting attendees told POLITICO.

Representing the bipartisan Egypt working group at the NSC meeting Tuesday were its two co-founders, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Andrew Albertson, former Bush NSC Middle East and democracy official Elliott Abrams, Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski, the Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff.

"Today National Security staff briefed the Members of the Working Group on Egypt on the Administration’s ongoing efforts to promote respect for human rights and a vibrant civil society, open political competition, and credible and transparent elections in Egypt, including the a comprehensive set of actions that support these goals in Egypt, for example with new programing and funding in support of civil society," NSC Spokesman Mike Hammer told POLITICO. "The National Security staff also noted that the Administration is continuing to press the Egyptians to open political competition and allow domestic and international monitors."

Participants who attended the meeting were reluctant to get into the substantive details of what the NSC officials discussed in the hour-long meeting. But they suggested the meeting comes in the midst of the Obama administration conducting a review of its policy on democracy in the Middle East, and a significantly stepped-up focus by senior Obama administration officials on the Egyptian democracy issue in particular.

Also discussed was the sense that while time is running out for the international community to apply meaningful pressure for Egypt to accept international elections monitors to observe its scheduled Nov. 28 parliamentary elections, such preparations might help ensure free and fair presidential elections, which are planned for next year.

“I am encouraged by the meeting, but I wish it could have taken place six months earlier,” Brookings’ Kagan told POLITICO Tuesday. “By the time we got started and get all engines rolling, we will have missed this [November parliamentary] elections. But the big game is the presidential elections and with that caveat, I am very heartened” that the administration is clearly becoming more active on the Egypt democracy issue.

"Stability in Egypt is an illusion, and we have to get on the right side of this thing," Kagan summarized his argument. The best outcome …is that the right candidate … is the one elected legitimately.

The Obama administration is considering its “options at a momentous time,” a second meeting attendee said on condition of anonymity Tuesday.

The critical moment for the U.S. to publicly make a statement about shortcomings in the elections is the day after the Nov. 28 polls, he continued. “If we want to encourage transparency in the transition period, it’s got to be right after elections.”

“It was a very serious discussion with a remarkable array of high level officials about how to pragmatically elevate this question of democratic governance, transparency and accountability in the bilateral U.S.-Egypt relationship,” he added. 

Another meeting attendee told the Obama officials not to worry — including from its Washington right flank — about the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood winning a majority of seats in the Egyptian parliament, which he thought was unlikely.

Members of the Egypt working group have held previous meetings with Power as well as with the NSC director for human rights Scott Busby and the NSC director for the Levant and North Africa Sergio Aguirre, but had not been previously granted an audience with the top two NSC Middle East hands, Ross and Shapiro.

The fact that the key NSC regional officials participated in Tuesday’s meeting was interpreted by the outside foreign policy experts as a significant indicator that the Obama administration is giving more serious and high-level policy attention to the issue.

It may also be a sign as well that Ross and Shapiro basically had both time and reason to devote to the issue because the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is currently on hold, and the Obama administration is “looking for a positive agenda in the region to talk about," a participant posited. The Obama administration is also concerned, he suggested, that its previous diplomatic efforts to press Cairo in private conversations and in written statements to repeal its Emergency Law and to accept international elections monitors have been rejected or ignored.