The Missing Obama-Romney Debate on Egypt

Neither candidate recommended a way to address the country's increasing radicalism and instability. How well do they really understand the problem?

morsi banner.jpg
A giant banner of Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi is pictured as Morsi addresses the nation at Cairo Stadium on October 6th, 2012. The banner reads, "Morsi is the first civilian president." (Reuters)

Hosni Mubarak had to go.

It's nice that the presidential candidates can agree on something. (Never mind that they agree on something that happened over twenty months ago.) During last night's debate, both candidates said that the United States had to stand with the brave Egyptians who took to Tahrir Square to demand Mubarak's ouster. This was, in fact, the position of the American public, which supported Egypt's uprising by a whopping 82-11 margin. Who would want to run against those numbers?

Yet neither candidate articulated a clear policy towards post-Mubarak Egypt. (Perhaps this is a reflection of Americans' own ambivalence towards Egypt, which has a middling 47-percent approval rating among the American public.) Instead, the candidates espoused a virtually identical set of guiding principles - Egypt's new government, they agreed, should uphold the rights of women, protect religious minorities, and act as a partner in American counterterrorism efforts - but failed to say how they would deal with Egyptian Islamists' rejection of these things. In this vein, the latest draft of Egypt's constitution conditions women's equality on its adherence to "Islamic sharia judgments," and Islamists have said that this could legalize marriage to young girls -- perhaps as early as nine years-old. Would either Obama or Romney use American aid to Egypt as leverage to protect Egyptian girls from this horrific future?

Presumably not, judging by last night's debate. For Romney, economic aid is a tool for preventing the influx of radicals, because without economic development, "you see al Qaeda rushing in, you see other jihadist groups rushing in." For Obama, economic aid is meant to help the Egyptian people realize their aspirations, which "are similar to young people's here": jobs, housing, and education. In other words, both candidates view economic aid as an important ingredient in producing a politically moderate, economically viable Egyptian future. Pay the aid now, the argument goes, and reap the rewards later -- perhaps much later.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it ignores what Egypt's Islamist leaders are doing now. In addition to its restrictive clause on women's rights, the new constitution draft would deny religious freedom to Shiites and Baha'is. ("Baha'is are a very eccentric group that is far from Islam," a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary leader told me earlier this month, as he justified denying Baha'is constitutional protections.) Meanwhile, Egypt's judicial system continues to prosecute blasphemy, and a television host critical of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was recently sentenced to four months in prison. Indeed, Morsi is establishing himself as Egypt's next autocrat: he seized legislative and constitution authority through an August fiat, and he is reportedly considering a new emergency law that would rival Mubarak's.

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Eric Trager is the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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