The Egyptian parliamentary election – and the presidential election to follow in September 2011 – is playing out against a background of years of police brutality and political corruption, buttressed by a so-called Emergency Law. That law, which has been in effect for three decades, gives police and security services sweeping powers to arrest and detain with little or no due process.
But administration critics say President Obama and his advisors have become too dependent on Egypt for its help to Israel regarding illegal smuggling from the Egyptian desert into Gaza, and helping maintain Arab neutrality vis a vis the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
While they acknowledge the value of this help, they contend that Egypt is acting in its own self-interest and would provide such help regardless of what the U.S. says about its electoral process.
One of the most vocal critics of President Hosni Mubarak's regime is Human Rights First, a New York City-based legal advocacy organisation. It is urging President Obama to publicly call on Egyptian authorities stop harassing ruling opposition party figures and open the parliamentary elections to international monitors.
|Calls for a "Comprehensive Strategy"
"The Egyptian government is using a 30-year state of emergency to make arbitrary arrests and violently repress political activists," said Neil Hicks, HRF's international policy advisor. "In preparation for upcoming elections this November, the government has silenced independent journalists, cracked down on activists and opposition candidates, and refused international election monitors."
Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the online journal, the Arab Reform Bulletin, told IPS, "I think that the United States should advocate democratisation and greater respect for human rights for Egyptians. This does not mean that the U.S. can make these things happen in Egypt, but we should be clear that we are in favor and willing to use the influence we have to promote them."
She added, "Public comments can make clear to Egyptian citizens where the United States stands on these issues - which has a value in and of itself - but clearly are not enough to have an effect on the calculations of the Egyptian government. That would require a more comprehensive strategy that considers public comment, private diplomacy, assistance programmes, and other forms of engagement with the Egyptian government and Egyptian citizens - which is exactly was has been missing from U.S. policy so far."
As to pro-democracy programmes, Dunne told IPS, these "are helpful partly for the resources they offer and even more so from the implied U.S. support for pro-democracy groups in Egypt. But they can only assist and support a pro-democracy movement from Egyptian society itself, not create one from outside."
"By the way," she said, "the obvious question is whether the United States can do this and still cooperate with the Egyptian government on the Arab- Israeli peace process and other issues. The track record suggests that the answer is yes. The Egyptian government takes its decisions on Israel and other regional issues for its own national security reasons, not to do a favour for the U.S."
"You need a license in Egypt to send a political text message," he added.
"The last round of elections in Egypt found policemen beating voters and officials grabbing ballot boxes," Hicks told IPS. "We cannot let that happen again."
The Egyptian government appears to be doing what it can to disrupt opposition plans to contest the Parliamentary election.
For example, the Associated Press reports that Egyptian security detained 65 members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood while they were hanging election posters. Authorities said the posters violated a new ban on religious expressions. The government has arrested some 250 members of the Brotherhood and 30 remain in jails.
Media suppression has also been ratcheted up in the pre- election period.
For example, Egypt's National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA), imposed new restrictions on text-message news services and mobile phone companies, in an apparent attempt to preempt possible anti-government activism during the polls.
And the Egyptian Ministry of Information now compels satellite channels to obtain licenses before broadcasting an event live or distributing news reports to other television channels.
The anti-media campaign has also included the firing of one of the country's better-known veteran journalists, who was editor of the main opposition newspaper. He had recently also been fired from his television talk show.
In another media move, authorities closed the religious conservative satellite television network, Al-Badr, for inciting sectarian hatred, and shut down the studios that produced the political talk show "Al-Qahira il-Youm" ("Cairo Today").
These actions have triggered calls from some for international monitors to supervise the election, and from others for a campaign to boycott the balloting altogether.
Washington has had little to say of current developments. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, had taken an increasing interest in the need for political reform and human rights improvements inside Egypt, a position associated with his neoconservative vision of Washington spreading democracy around the world.
But the Bush position caused considerable friction between the two governments, and Obama returned to seeing Egypt as a peace process partner.
The Mubarak regime, however, has made the U.S. position difficult to maintain. For example, President Mubarak had promised to lift the state of emergency, which has been in effect since 1981 and significantly curbs civil liberties inside Egypt. But it chose to renew it instead. That drew a stiff protest from the Obama administration.
President Obama has also dramatically cut funds to promote democracy in Egypt. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that these cuts over the past year - amounting to around 50 percent - have drawn accusations that the Obama administration is easing off reform pressure to ensure Egypt's support on Mideast policy, including the peace process with Israel.
Egypt has been one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid ever since it became the first Arab country to sign a peace accord with Israel, in 1979.
Since the Bush administration, Washington has been reducing the nonmilitary part of the package. This year's aid is $1.55 billion, including $250 million in nonmilitary aid. In 2008, the Bush administration dedicated around $45 million of that to programmes for "governing justly and democratically".
The Obama administration's slash in these pro-democracy programmes has drawn a mixed response. Some contend they are ineffective and merely plant seeds of discord between the U.S. and Cairo. Others think they have a place.
Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, minimises the importance of the U.S. pro- democracy programmes.
"The real issue is what - or what not - the White House and State Department are saying publicly, and privately to the Egyptian government, about the upcoming elections," he told IPS.
"The Obama administration is unfortunately not interested in pushing the sclerotic Mubarak regime (Mubarak is 82, in declining health and without a vice president) to display even mild respect for political freedoms, including free and fair elections," he said.