Democratization as a Source of Tension Between the United States and Egypt
On December 14, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a meeting featuring Heba Elkoudsy, Wilson Center Visiting Arab Journalist. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Elkoudsy opened the discussion by contrasting periods of cooperation with tension between the United States and Egypt. The two countries maintained a good relationship during the George W. Bush administration, often cooperating and discussing major regional issues. One clear indication, according to Elkoudsy, is Egypt’s continued participation in the Middle East peace process and multilateral talks; specifically, she cited Egypt’s supportive role as interlocutor in the Arab-Israeli conflict during the stormy period starting with the Second Intifada in 2000 to the Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire in 2008. In addition, Egypt has cooperated with the United States on Iraq and Afghanistan – in providing medical aid, in the training and deployment of US troops, and permitting U.S. naval transit through the Suez Canal as well as opening up its airspace to U.S. air forces. More generally though, maintaining and improving bilateral political and military relations with both the United States and Israel has long been among Egypt’s top interests.
Though relations have been friendly and cooperative on the whole, Elkoudsy believes relations became strained under the previous Bush administration, citing its “Freedom Agenda” and more assertive foreign policy, engendered largely by the events of September 11. Meanwhile, the United States has prodded Egypt to lead the way for human rights and democratization in the Arab world; this has been a major source of tension, she said. Two human rights cases have highlighted Egypt’s violations and rejection of such calls: Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Ayman Nour, both political prisoners. The State Department announced its concern and disappointment over their cases, but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rejected all such pressures, seeing it instead as a U.S. attempt to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs – an off-putting notion to many countries in the region.
Nevertheless, in recent years President Mubarak has shown signs of leniency by initiating some reforms, most notably holding the first multi-candidate presidential election in 2005. Elkoudsy acknowledged that American pressures likely factored in President Mubarak’s compliance to calls for social and political progress. However, she also stressed that several internal forces - such as civic activism “from below,” the role of Egypt’s intellectual class, the re-establishment of previously banned political parties, and the emergence of private media and the Internet - have enabled Egyptians to voice their discontent with the government and, perhaps, oblige Mubarak’s concessions.
While U.S. calls for democratization have met resistance, Elkoudsy noted three promising signs in Egyptian society that suggest desires for democracy are being realized. One, Egypt’s private sector has been at the forefront in pushing the government to adopt more progressive political and economic policies. Second, Egypt’s middle and intellectual classes have been influential in opening politics to public debate; this is “essential,” she added. Finally, in order for the Egyptian government to attract foreign investments, which it needs, it will have to institute a fairer justice system and a freer media.
Speaking on the substance of future US-Egypt talks, Elkoudsy enumerated seven critical issues that President Obama needs to address during his tenure: the “absolute power” of the Egyptian president, restrictions on political organization, the use of “emergency law” over judiciary law, torturing of political prisoners, intolerance towards religious minorities, the trial of civilians in military courts, and the need for oversight in the electoral process. Elkoudsy stressed that the period leading up to the next presidential elections in 2011 is critical as it is the only chance to ask the candidates to offer their real plans for reform and to ask Obama's administration to keep the pressure on the Egyptian regime to adopt more political reform.
In closing, Elkoudsy remarked that, at present, “democracy” is regarded largely as a foreign idea and, thus, “naturally resisted” though lack of understanding on the part of the Egyptian people plays some role, she conceded. Elkoudsy emphasized that, for it to succeed, democracy – as a concept and as an alternative to the current system – must be “internalized” for it to be accepted and activated by the people. On a final point, Elkoudsy stated that until everyday adversity and economic hardships are ameliorated, politics will remain a secondary issue for most Egyptians.
Drafted by Nader Mehran on behalf of the Middle East Program.