US casts wary eye on Egypt vote

How Washington engages with Egypt's next government could determine its stance in the post-Arab Spring era.

    In 2009, Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, referred to ex-president Hosni Mubarak and his wife as "friends" [EPA]

    The impact of Egypt's upcoming elections will stretch beyond the nation's borders, eventually reaching the White House, where the potential for an Islamist victory may push Washington to rethink its relations with Cairo.

    The polls, which are scheduled to start on November 28 and are to be followed by a new constitution in 2013, bring the possibility of radical change. Many observers believe there is a legitimate chance that Islamist parties will win a majority stake in parliament.

    How the US responds to this possibility, and exactly how it engages Egypt's next administration, could go a long way in determining how Washington will approach other fledgling governments in the post-Arab Spring era.

    Egypt under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the deposed president who served from 1981 until earlier this year, was seen as a key regional ally for the United States and a diplomatic buffer between Israel and the rest of the region.

    The 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, in addition to bringing peace between the two countries, made Egypt the first Arab nation to recognise Israel's statehood.

    Since 1979, the US has given Egypt an average of $2bn in financial aid each year, with $1.3bn of that total in the form of military hardware and other assistance. A compliant Egyptian government has provided the US with open access to the Suez Canal, a strategic passage for US warships, as well as other concessions.

    Regional relations

    Longstanding ties between Cairo and Washington became strained in January when revolution broke out in Egypt, inspired by revolts in the region now known collectively as the Arab Spring.

    Speaking to a news programme in January, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, declared: "Real stability only comes from the kind of democratic participation that allows people to feel that they are being heard", and called for "real democracy" in Egypt.

    Yet, two years earlier, Hillary Clinton had referred to Mubarak and his wife as "friends" of her family, which includes her husband Bill Clinton, the US president from 1993 to 2001.

    If it was awkward for the US to publicly denounce former friends, it may prove an even greater diplomatic challenge to form new ties with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which was officially banned during Mubarak's rule.

    Even so, experts believe the US needs all the friends it can find in the region. Washington currently has no diplomatic relations with Iran, its slowly-improving rapport with Syria has been shattered, and Lebanon, where Hezbollah holds sway, is hardly an ally.

    Status quo

    Marina Ottaway, senior associate at the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the US has, so far, kept its signals about Egypt's elections relatively muted.

    "I think there is a lot of concern regarding this situation, because as far as the US is concerned, Mubarak is gone, and therefore, the revolution better be over now," said Ottaway, who added that Washington may be more worried about the destabilising effects of Egypt's battered economy.

    "The United States is not in favour of any radical change, and, in fact, has seen the presence of the military as an extremely stabilising factor there," she said.

    Ottaway said she believes the US is "not unhappy that the military continues to play a very important role and seem to be asserting itself more and more".

    Washington's decision not to question the way Egypt's ruling military government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has been running the country since Mubarak stepped down is perceived as a slight by many Egyptians, some of whom continue to protest the use of military tribunals against civilians and other issues.

    'Same catalogue'

    Mohamed Zaree, the Egypt Road Map project manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), said the US seems to be ignoring issues that are threatening Egypt's future democracy in favour of whatever stability the SCAF can provide.

    According to Zaree, the US is staying "with the same catalogue since Mubarak". As examples, he cited Washington's cooperation with the SCAF's opposition to the foreign funding of NGOs (including the CIHRS), remaining quiet on the use of military courts, and not speaking out against "supra-constitutional principles" which spare the SCAF from parliamentary oversight.

    "We don’t have any statements on these issues from the US," said Zaree. "I’m expecting this [to come] and I’m wondering why it’s not happening and why they aren’t talking about it."

    He suspects the silence stems from a fear of being forced into diplomatic relations with a potentially Islamist-led parliament.

    "They fear anything on this matter," said Zaree. "Because of this, they don't look at the SCAF's violations....and this is very depressing because we had a revolution."

    The US State Department declined requests for comment or interviews, specifically from Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Egypt.

    "[Ambassador Peterson] is currently not doing any interviews on the Egyptian elections in an effort to not get in front of their story," a spokesperson told Al Jazeera, later clarifying that "no one [from the State Department] is going out on this issue".

    Unequal democracies 

    Although the US has for decades pledged its support for democratic elections, it has at times found itself in an adversarial position against the party chosen by voters.

    In one recent example, Washington was stung when Hamas, an organisation it considers a terrorist group, won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.

    If the US can afford to maintain Hamas at a healthy distance, Washington will be forced into closer diplomatic relations with any party winning a majority in the Egyptian parliament.

    "Congress will probably try to slap sanctions if Islamists win elections. If the peace treaty with Israel is abrogated, then all military aid would be immediately suspended," said Ottaway.

    "But the White House wants nothing of this, because it won’t help maintain its interests in the region."

    On the question of Israel, Ottaway said there's little chance that the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist parties, regardless of the will on the streets, will try to scrap the peace deal.

    "There seems to be a general position that no one in Egypt wants to go to war again," said Ottaway. "What has always been a cold peace between Egypt [and Israel] will likely remain."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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