The U.S. Hasn't Helped Egypt's Liberals Nearly Enough

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When Kerry visits Egypt this weekend, he should focus on pushing for democratic reforms, not just economic ones.

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Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Tegel International Airport in Berlin, February 25, 2013. (Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama stood at a White House podium, echoing the pride of the Egyptian people's call for freedom in a speech on Feb. 11, 2011, the same day that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak finally relinquished power.

In his remarks, Obama told the world, "The United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt. We stand ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary--and asked for--to pursue a credible transition to a democracy."

In the two years since the beginning of Egypt's transition to democracy, nearly every point of inspiration delivered in Obama's speech suffered a major setback. Even promises of U.S. assistance to Egypt remain only partially fulfilled at best. The most glaring gap in U.S. support to Egypt, however, lies in the arena that can most significantly impact the democratic transition: support for liberals and liberal ideology. With news that newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would soon arrive in Egypt, expectations run high in the hopes that the Obama administration can move away from an economy-based approach and instead engage in a new political strategy that supports the transition to democracy and fulfills the president's promise.

Kerry's visit offers an opportunity to revise and rebuild the U.S. relationship with those who share its values.

Despite occasional threats from U.S. Congress, military assistance to Egypt remains immune to political developments. The Obama administration intensified its efforts to support the Egyptian economy through development assistance and broad transition initiatives [t1] while driving support for a loan from the International Monetary Fund. But the U.S. focus on the strategic relationship and economics in Egypt has left Egypt's liberals to fend for themselves. Liberals include not only members of the opposition, increasingly viewed as unrepresentative of the revolution and its demands, but also the local watchdog and civil society organizations. U.S. and E.U. officials regularly complained of the lack of a negotiating partner in the early days of the transition, and that figure eventually arrived in the form of President Mohamed Morsi - and the Muslim Brotherhood, by extension. As the Egyptian presidential elections came to a close, the Brotherhood had already begun its "charm offensive" in April 2012 to convince the White House and the U.S. Congress of its support for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and free-market credentials.

Confident that Morsi would abide by the terms of the treaty and maintain the strong U.S.-Egypt military relationship, the Obama administration remained relatively subdued in its condemnation of anti-democratic developments, such as Morsi's August and November constitutional declarations that granted him unprecedented presidential powers. Only a handful of U.S. officials remained adamant in their position to condition U.S. military and economic assistance to Egypt on positive democratic change, despite Islamist majoritarian tendencies that repeatedly dashed hopes for a consensus-driven transition. The over-emphasis on a Morsi guarantee of Israeli security endangers Egypt's political well-being and US interests more than Obama may recognize.

The start of the investigation against foreign-funded non-government organizations in 2011, which brought about the highest tensions between Egypt and the United States in recent memory, resulted in the most damaging consequences to Egypt's transition. Over the course of the two years since then, U.S. funding to civil society saw limited disbursement as the targeting of activists increased, claims of torture at the hands of police returned, and electoral violations threatened the legitimacy of state institutions.

The U.S. disengagement from democracy promotion in Egypt diminished the capacity for many NGOs to perform their duties, and the trial forced some groups to keep a lower profile. Foreign NGO employees were eventually released, diffusing tension with the United States, but the ongoing criminal trial contributed to Obama's preference for a light footprint in Egypt. The Obama administration's public statements remained muted in the face of grave breaches of public trust, such as Morsi's rushed drafting and approval of the constitution, the return of police brutality in recent protests in Port Said and other cities, and the announcement of elections without a clear law regulating them. Only a few of Morsi's missteps led to strongly-worded condemnation from the United States, such as his delayed condemnation of an assault on the U.S. embassy during public protests and his recently revealed 2010 comments in which he insulted Jews .

Despite the lack of international support, many opposition leaders and NGOs continue to push for liberal values, and achieved some success in advancing their agenda. Struggling to maintain a level of organization and coordination, the liberal political opposition nonetheless led the effort to discredit a constitution many viewed as unfavorable to citizenship rights and a balanced government. With the support of mass popular protests in the streets from ordinary citizens who have incorporated liberalism into their understanding of Egyptian politics, liberals succeeded in forcing Morsi to commit to a system to amend the constitution. The recent backlash against Morsi's decision to impose a curfew and state of emergency in the canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez also forced Morsi to soften his position. The political opposition also obligated Morsi to consider a cabinet reshuffle and solicit recommendations for changes to the elections law.

As state legitimacy dwindles in the eyes of the public, the search for a viable alternative provides for Egypt's liberal-minded politicians with a window of opportunity. But that window will not remain open for long; it may already be closing as internal divisions translate into confusing messages to a revolution-fatigued constituency and limited, but growing, calls for a return to military rule.

Egyptian opposition liberals and political parties may rebuff Secretary Kerry's outreach, but only due to the distrust that emerged from the U.S. position that relied on the Morsi government as the sole conduit for bilateral ties. Kerry's visit offers an opportunity to revise and rebuild the U.S. relationship with those who share its values. As witnessed with Mubarak's ouster on February 2011, the removal of the military leadership by decree last August, and the crescendo of voices calling for Morsi to step down now, power in Egypt remains ephemeral. Liberal values and those who represent them can weather the political storm and promote long-term stability that satisfies U.S. goals in the region, but not without help.

At minimum, Kerry should pressure Morsi to immediately register the NGOs facing trial and stress the importance of new law that allows rights organizations to operate freely. A memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Egyptian government could also facilitate foreign funding to civil society groups to promote good governance and democracy. Diplomatic outreach to liberal-minded parties should also rank high in priority, with particular care given to the language used to prevent misunderstanding or distrust. Strategic concerns and economics alone, without the democratic legitimacy and strong liberal tradition needed to cement it, are insufficient to ensure security or prosperity. Although liberals have kept a courageous front, they cannot hold the line without the required assistance promised by Obama two years ago.

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Tarek Radwan is the associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. 

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