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.

kerry plane.jpg
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.

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

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