W hat is it with shifts in American foreign policy and the month of November? On the first Thursday of November 2003, the United States changed its foreign policy toward Egypt. In an exceptional event, then-President George W. Bush spoke about freedom and democracy in the Middle East, singling out Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain for praise, while reserving the hammer for Egypt.
Not long into the speech, Bush commented broadly on the region’s lack of respect for human rights and penchant for a less-than-democratic approach to governance. In a sharp departure from post-Camp David norms, Bush singled Egypt out for what passed in diplomatic circles as strongly negative commentary.
“The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East — and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East,” Bush said. It was the first time in a quarter century that a US president had publicly criticized Egypt.
As things turned out, Bush’s strategy of what some dubbed “change through embarrassment” went nowhere, resulting in the closing off of bilateral dialogue on everything from democracy and human rights to a free-trade pact. Talks on the latter died out as Egyptian officials bluntly declared, “Free trade is about business, not politics. You want an FTA for business reasons? Fine. Link it to human rights? No thanks.”
Now, in the November just past, the Obama administration began laying the groundwork for a new foreign policy toward Egypt. A senior US State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, gave Egypt Today an exclusive look at what is to come.
What’s different this time around, the official says, is a decision “taken at the highest level” that the US would not look to embarrass Egypt publicly to win concessions on democracy and human rights. In another departure, the official adds, Washington is now willing to make a major concession, albeit one that few would think is likely to ever see the light of day.
The first stage of talks is to open in mid-December when Undersecretary for Political Affairs William Burns leads the US side into talks outlining America’s point of view on what it clearly sees as an ambitious agenda.
America is looking for sweeping change. If the agenda the official outlined holds, talks will begin with the abrogation of the Emergency Law — in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 — and its replacement by a standard counterterrorism (CT) law. Egyptian lawmakers have been fine-tuning a draft CT law for years now, but have yet to send it for a final vote in the People’s Assembly.
“One of the expected results of the negotiations is to replace the Emergency Law with a counterterrorism law that must support human rights,” the official says. “We haven’t seen the draft, and we really do hope it is not more of the same.”
Pushing for the CT law amounts to little more than asking an ally to accelerate a legislative process already underway. The next steps, however, may well prove more complicated. The official suggests that the United States wants to see a unified law guaranteeing Egyptians the right to religious freedom (freedom of choice in worship and the right to identify oneself by any religious affiliation on state IDs) and the establishment of a non-partisan authority to issue building permits for of all houses of worship, regardless of faith or denomination. (At present, building permits for mosques and churches are approved by separate authorities, with the presidency essentially serving as the court of final appeal.)
The official also noted that Washington is looking for Cairo to step up its efforts to combat human trafficking. First Lady Suzanne Mubarak is a global campaigner against the trade and has pushed the government to clamp down on it here at home, but the United States clearly wants more.
This represents a fundamental change in US-Egyptian relations, a move from reactionary demands for quick fixes to a fundamental re-thinking of the domestic frameworks through which Egypt governs issues of interest to Washington. So instead of protesting the slowness with which the government brings a human rights activist to trial or demanding to know why a certain congregation did not receive a permit to expand a church — to take two past examples — America wants to see a new Egyptian legal framework that would provide ongoing protection to all.
With the fallout from Iranian electoral violence and stuffed Afghan ballot boxes still roiling in the region, Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections are also set to come under additional scrutiny in the talks.
Electoral fever has begun its slow spread throughout Egypt, with Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa refusing to rule out a bid for the nation’s top office, outgoing IAEA chief and Nobel laureate Mohammed Elbaradei tapped by some and President Hosni Mubarak having so far avoided saying whether he will stand for another term.
And while the governing National Democratic Party has so far remained silent on the issue of presidential elections — currently slated for 2011 — the party faithful are a little less circumspect regarding the parliamentary contest scheduled for next year. Look no further than the NDP’s fall convention, where the banned and no-longer-so-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood (the largest, if unofficial, opposition bloc in Parliament with 88 independents wearing their colors) came under heavy criticism.
Fearing a re-run of the clashes that marked the final two stages of Egypt’s last three-stage parliamentary elections, the Obama administration is sending a clear message that it expects a more orderly process this time around. Its tool is something Egypt has long rejected out of hand: international monitoring of the elections.
The search for a monitoring entity has already begun, the State Department official says, suggesting the monitors will be neither Americans nor Europeans. The only name on the table now is the Asia Regional Governance Programme (ARGP), an initiative of the United Nations Development Programme. While ARGP is the leading candidate today, the official notes that the search is very much still on, suggesting the issue will certainly come up in negotiations with Cairo.
This much is clear: Washington will not accept a re-run of either Iran 2009 or Egypt 2005, where allegations of voter intimidation and clashes between pro- and anti-government partisans were widespread. Should that happen, the official suggests, the Obama administration would be vocal both in its protest and in publicly stating its future demands for reform.
As sharp a departure from Bush policy as this may be, the “reward” the State Department official is holding out could be significant.
“Egypt may get what it has wanted for years: A US declaration in favor of a nuclear-free Middle East,” the official says. It’s a notion that is as likely to rouse the fury of America’s pro-Israel lobby as it is unlikely to actually ever happen.
To start with, the Obama administration has abjectly failed to convince the Israeli government to slap a freeze on new construction in settlements. Moreover, few analysts consider it likely that any Israeli government could consider mothballing its weapons before arriving at a peace treaty with Syria and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most importantly, Israel would see it as suicidal to give up its nuclear weapons while Iran — which has promised to wipe Israel from the face of the earth — continues to pursue nuclear ambitions of its own.
Nothing in the international arena happens without some give and take, and in this case, a more realistic ‘give’ from the Americans would certainly sweeten the pot. et
Obama’s efforts are set against a complicated backdrop left by his predecessor:
Bush became the first American president to publicly criticize Egypt in November 2003.
America took a tough line on Egypt’s constitutional amendments of 2005, which set the scene for multi-candidate parliamentary elections.
Bush administration officials set in play the reduction in USAID’s budget for Egypt and began directly funding NGOs critical of the Mubarak government.
While seen as “meddling” in Egypt’s domestic politics, the Bush administration found itself needing Egyptian support in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza. The result was multiple mixed messages as the administration effectively lobbied Congress against conditioning aid to Egypt on Cairo’s human rights record.