Center for Strategic Communication

Last week, Egyptian human rights activist Bahieddin Hassan
penned an open
letter to Barack Obama
which asked "that spokespeople and officials in your
administration stop commenting on developments in Egypt." After reciting the
liberal narrative on what ails Egypt (short version: the Muslim Brotherhood),
he concluded that "as long as they cannot speak the truth about what is
happening in Egypt," the United States should simply "keep silent."  He must therefore have been very pleased
with President Obama’s State of the Union Address, which devoted only one brief
passage to Egypt and to the broader challenges in the Arab world. Who says we don’t listen to Arab

Well, as they say, sometimes
you can get what you want and still not be happy
.  Here’s all Obama had to say about Egypt
and the Arab uprisings last night:  

"In the Middle East, we will stand with
citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions
to democracy.  The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate
the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can – and will – insist on
respect for the fundamental rights of all people." 

Now, in my view that’s pretty much where the U.S. position
should be: not seeking to dictate outcomes or take sides, avoiding the mistake
of constantly inserting itself unproductively or even counterproductively into
the daily turbulence of Egyptian politics, supporting the consolidation of
democratic institutions and laying out a normative benchmark on fundamental
universal rights.  Sure, I’d like
to see this stated more prominently and forcefully, with a fully
articulated strategy and vision
for engagement and promoting democratic
change – but the State of the Union probably wasn’t the time or place for that.

Still, his brief
comment, buried deep in the speech, is unlikely to satisfy an Egypt policy
community or an Egyptian public which generally wants to see something
more.  But what, exactly?  On February 1, I put out a friendly
challenge to the policy community
to specify what precisely this more
robust policy might be.   I
don’t think that the policy debate has really engaged with how the radically
changed Egyptian political landscape affects the value of the  standard toolkit of democracy promotion
– pro-democracy rhetoric, support for civil society organizations, and using
aid as leverage.  So I posed six
questions:  how to deal with
Islamists likely to fare well in elections; how to effectively support liberals
in the actually existing Egyptian political arena; how to differentiate between
supporting the democratic process and supporting the current government;
whether conditionality on military aid would have an effect given the current
political role of the SCAF; whether conditionality on economic aid was
appropriate at a time of economic crisis; and how to engage with a suspicious
and often hostile Egyptian public.

I got fewer responses from the policy community than I had
hoped for, but we’re all very busy. 
I did get quite a few variations on the "we shouldn’t be trying to
promote democracy" and "the U.S. isn’t really interested in democracy" themes, which
are defensible positions but don’t answer the questions posed. Egyptians seemed far
more likely than American policy analysts to offer some version of "Washington
should just butt out of Egyptian affairs." 

The most common
answer (for a good example see Juul below) was to more forcefully, consistently and vocally call out Morsi’s
government when it abused democratic procedures and human rights.  I agree completely that such public
rhetoric should be deployed (I quite liked the consisently excellent Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner’s comments today), but let’s be honest: it probably wouldn’t actually affect very much, it only
opens up the obvious next question of matching words with deeds, and nobody
seems to notice much when the U.S. does issue such criticisms (for instance, Ambassador
Patterson’s critical comments in Alexandria
this week, widely seen as a
departure, were actually virtually identical to Hillary
Clinton’s comments in the same city last July
). I’d like to see a bit more thinking here about step two:  after we’ve issued these public criticisms of the Muslim Brotherhood, or recognized their unconstructive role, what next?  What is meant to follow from this recognition or from the public rhetoric?  

At any rate, here are some of the best of the responses I
received: Elijah Zarwan gives sharp responses to five of the six
questions;  Peter Juul (on behalf
of the excellent team at the Center for American Progress) calling for more
public criticism of Muslim Brotherhood mistakes; Jeb Ober of Democracy
International calls to support liberal organizations and trends, but not
parties; and Joshua Slepin points to more effective ways to leverage ties to
Egypt’s military.



Elijah Zarwan,
Cairo-based analyst

1. The Islamists.    Whatever US
attitudes toward the Brotherhood, calls for barring its political party from
elections or refusing to deal with elected Brotherhood politicians would be
counterproductive and frankly obscene, given the solid relationship with the
previous dictatorial regime. Dropping relations with an elected government
after maintaining close ties with an unelected, corrupt, and often brutal
dictatorship is no way to support democracy. If the government of Egypt — any
government of Egypt — backslides on human rights or on democratic values (as
the current government has), the United States should certainly continue to
speak out, forcefully and clearly, but in the context of a frank disagreement
among partners with a shared interest in Egypt’s prosperity and stability. The
old adage that in politics there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests,
applies: A stable, prosperous Egypt with regular, peaceful rotation of power
is, above all, in Egyptians’ interests, but also in Americans’ interests. It is
in no one’s interest to see Egypt fall. If an Egyptian government — any
Egyptian government — makes serious mistakes, the United States may certainly
express its alarm. But such messages are more likely to be received if there is
an interlocutor on the other end of the line. 

2.  Supporting Liberals.   US support — overt or covert — for secular Egyptian
political parties would be the surest way to ensure their failure. These
parties must already refute charges of trying to implement a foreign agenda and
of representing a westernized elite. Tarring them by association with the
United States, which remains broadly unpopular in Egypt among seculars and
Islamists alike, would be counterproductive. US politicians and officials
should absolutely continue to meet with and to advise the opposition, as they
should absolutely continue to meet with and advise the government, but material
support is a waste of political and financial capital. Few of the good
civil-society groups accept US government funding, on principle and out of fear
of criticism and legal reprisals. In the current moment, the US could best
support Egyptian civil society by expressing its concerns about the current,
restrictive draft NGO law, which human rights groups have correctly decried as
more restrictive than the law it would replace. 

3.  The Process.   Accepting
the results of elections does indeed risk being seen as support for the
victors. Many of the Brotherhood’s opponents, including intelligent,
well-informed people, continue to believe that Shafiq won the presidential
elections but that the United States interceded on behalf of the Brotherhood.
This is perhaps unavoidable. Again, the United States can best support minority
rights in Egypt and respect for fundamental human rights by continuing to speak
about these issues, in public and in private. The current Egyptian government
has repeatedly stressed its commitment to international treaties. That is
generally taken as a byword for one treaty: that with Israel. US policy should
reflect an equal concern for Egypt’s human-rights commitments. 

4.  Conditionality on military aid.  Threatening the
Brotherhood with the prospect of a cut to US military aid is in effect
threatening the Brotherhood with the prospect of a military coup, which would
be an inherently undemocratic outcome. Moreover, the US should not be in the
business of making threats it cannot realistically keep. As the question notes,
most of the money in US military aid changes hands in Washington; it is equally
a subsidy to the US military-industrial complex, funded by the American
taxpayer, as it is a strategic and foreign policy tool. The challenge for US
policymakers during this turbulent time will be to maintain good relations with
Egypt, the state and the people, without appearing to enter an impassioned
domestic political struggle. Military-to-military ties are an important
component of that relationship, but need not be the only component, or even the
backbone of that relationship. It is in the US interest to broaden and deepen
its ties to the nation of Egypt. Perhaps the correct approach is to continue to
foster ties on many levels: business-to-business, legislature-to-legislature,
jurist-to-jurist, student-to-student, scientist-to-scientist, farmer-to-farmer,
and religious-leader-to-religious-leader. 

5.  Conditionality on economic assistance.

economic crisis, and US influence in the Bretton Woods institutions,
superficially presents an opportunity for leverage. It is a dangerous game,
however. Since the 2011 uprising, the specter of economic collapse has hovered
menacingly in the middle-ground. It is now more immediate. Should the feared
economic meltdown occur, the results could be severely destabilizing, with
little guarantee that whoever succeeds the current government would pursue
policies more palatable to foreign governments or institutions. Acute economic
hardship and a breakdown in state services risk producing a sentimentality for
the old regime and undermining prospects for democratic reform. 



Peter Juul, Center
for American Progress:

The ongoing
political and security crisis in Egypt
has spilled a lot of virtual ink in
the policy community here in Washington (see Brian Katulis, Ken Sofer, and my  take on the situation). We see Egypt
undergoing a perfect storm of political, security, and economic crises that
President Mohamed Morsi and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood have greatly
contributed to with their inept, self-interested approach to governance and
political transition over the last year. But the current crisis shouldn’t be
cause for rash action by the United States – financial assistance shouldn’t be
abruptly cut off, and the United States should maintain support for Egypt in
international financial institutions like the IMF. At the same time, however,
we argue that the Obama administration should respond more vocally than it has
to date to actions and rhetoric of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood
that undermine the prospects for an inclusive political transition.

While Marc
Lynch’s analysis
ultimately delivers an overall recommendation similar to
ours – don’t rashly cut off or otherwise reconfigure U.S. assistance to Egypt –
it comes from an analysis that appears too eager to absolve the Muslim
Brotherhood of its large role in Egypt’s current mess and insists too hard that
the Obama administration hasn’t made mistakes in its handling of the Muslim
Brotherhood and President Morsi.

Lynch’s argument appears to be directed at those analysts who
contend that the Obama administration isn’t being supportive enough of Egyptian
democracy or non-Islamist political parties and movements or hard enough on the
Brotherhood and President Morsi. (This
by Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is a
case in point.) He correctly notes that, contrary to the rumors that swirl
around the Middle East (and among more extreme conservatives here in the United
States), the Obama administration is no more "backing" President Morsi and the
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt than it is "backing" Prime Minister David Cameron
and the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom. And he’s right that the non-Islamist
opposition in Egypt is weak, fragmented, and feckless, and therefore unable for
the time being to present an effective political challenge to the Brotherhood
under normal circumstances like parliamentary elections.

But Lynch’s analysis founders on the false dichotomy he
posits between two analyses of the current situation in Egypt. One the one
hand, he argues, are analysts like Trager who see the Muslim Brotherhood
driving to dominate Egyptian state and society by authoritarian means. This group,
Lynch says, wants the United States to distance itself from President Morsi and
the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, support Egypt’s fractious
non-Islamist opposition, and condition American aid on democratic and inclusive
government. On the other hand, Lynch sketches out what is presumably his own
position: a somewhat sympathetic view of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government
as a victim of circumstances largely out of its control. This government is
"weak, ineffective and paralyzed," can’t control the bureaucracy, can’t provide
basic security, and remains fearful of the military.

But Lynch’s dichotomy is itself founded on a series of false
dichotomies.  There is no good
reason to assume that the propositions that the Egyptian government is "weak,
ineffective and paralyzed" and that the Muslim Brotherhood is attempting to
dominate the process of political transition and expand its control over the
Egyptian state are mutually exclusive. They can, in fact, be complementary –
the Muslim Brotherhood may be attempting to dominate the transition process and
Egyptian state because it is weak,
ineffective and paralyzed. The weaker President Morsi feels, the more important
it will be for him and the Brotherhood to extend and consolidate their control
over state and society. And this attempt itself fuels both active and passive
opposition to the Brotherhood among Egyptians.

Ultimately, though, the main flaw with Lynch’s analysis is
that it fails to take into account the rather large role the Brotherhood and
President Morsi have played in creating Egypt’s current predicament. The
Brotherhood-dominated parliament – nearly half the seats in the legislature are
filled by members of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party – failed not
once but twice to produce an inclusive Constituent Assembly to draft the new
Egyptian constitution. And when non-Islamists began withdrawing from the
Assembly in November and Egyptian courts threatened to dissolve it yet again,
Morsi granted himself wide-ranging powers immune from judicial review that gave
a now even-more Islamist-dominated Assembly cover under which to rush through a

While Lynch admits the Muslim Brotherhood has "performed
abysmally in power," his overall analysis ignores the extent to which President
Morsi and the Brotherhood are themselves part of the problem. The Brotherhood’s
exceedingly poor management of the constitution drafting process – in
particular the debacle of President Morsi’s decree and the rushed passage of
the constitution – has contributed mightily to the current crisis of political
legitimacy President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated legislature now
face. Throughout 2012, the Brotherhood gave the appearance of riding roughshod
over other the interests and concerns of other political parties and societal
groups – non-Islamists in particular. In an era in which there are multiple
centers of power in Egypt (as we
at the Center have argued for quite some time
), the Brotherhood’s failure
to govern in an inclusive manner – the negative circumstances in which it has
had to operate notwithstanding – was bound to create some sort of reaction, if
not precisely the one we’re seeing on the streets of Egypt today.

Lynch’s ultimate policy recommendations – "Stop the crisis,
fix the institutions, stabilize the economy" – are sound, but impossible to
accomplish given the way the Brotherhood has behaved in power over the last
year. They have shown no sign they are ready to be part of the solution rather
than part of the problem. Neither winning a legitimate election, nor a
fragmented opposition, nor a still-powerful military establishment absolves the
Brotherhood of its manifest failures in governance and shepherding a political

And while, as noted earlier, Lynch’s ultimate general
recommendation – don’t do anything rash – is in sync with those Brian,
Ken, and I proposed
, the other general recommendation that the Obama
administration should keep doing what it has been doing is flawed. Lynch
rightly notes that Obama administration officials have exhorted Egypt’s new
leaders to adhere to universal values like human rights and democracy. But
these exhortations – most definitely defensible at the time – have not been
matched with criticisms of Egyptian missteps, most notably during what we
called "the muted U.S. response to President Morsi’s decree." Relying on
exhortations has not worked to shape, change, or constrain President Morsi’s
and the Muslim Brotherhood’s negative behavior thus far, and sharper criticisms
of their unhelpful and damaging actions would at very least help dispel notions
in Egypt and the wider region that the United States wants the Muslim
Brotherhood in charge of Egypt.

In short, Lynch posits a false dichotomy of analytical
frameworks for Egypt that ultimately lets the Muslim Brotherhood and President
Morsi off the hook for their large contributions to Egypt’s current unrest. And
while we arrive at the same place in terms of not rashly changing our aid
relationship to Cairo, we differ in that we believe that seeing the Muslim
Brotherhood and President Morsi as part of the problem of Egypt’s multiple
crises is critical to adjusting U.S. policy going forward. Exhortations to good
behavior are no longer adequate given a year’s worth of ill will the Muslim
Brotherhood has accumulated as a result of its behavior in power.


Jed Ober, Director of
Programs, Democracy International

The short answer is, I think, that
leftists organizations want our support, but leftist political parties do not.
Shortly thereafter the fall of Mubarak I spent a significant amount of time in
Egypt talking to such individuals and organizations. It’s important to make a
distinction here between Egyptian civil society and Egyptian political parties
and political organizations. Egyptian political parties and organizations are
wary to engage with U.S. democratic development organizations and are not
likely to accept such support. It’s not that they don’t want political advice
and guidance, it’s that they don’t want it from us for of fear alienating their
domestic constituency which would see such assistance as foreign interference
and as an example of foreign agents challenging Egypt’s sovereignty. Egyptian
civil society is not averse, however, to working with American based
organizations and receiving assistance from USAID, MEPI, or other U.S. donor
organizations. Based on this reality, it would be smart for the U.S. to
continue to provide assistance to such organizations, albeit perhaps in a more
strategic way. Civil society assistance is often given through funding
mechanisms with broad scopes. USAID and MEPI would be well suited to think more
strategically about such assistance in Egypt and focus more on targeted
advocacy initiatives as opposed to broader civic participation activities. One
area of focus could be on organizations that aggregate and advocate for
specific interests – such as labor or trade unions – and thus engage citizens
in the political process in terms they can understand personally.

The Islamists?

We can’t "oppose" the Muslim Brotherhood while supporting democracy
in Egypt, particularly if they continue to win Egyptian elections, as seems
likely to be the case. That policy is likely to sow more discontent in Egypt
and throughout the Middle East and will trigger a backlash throughout the
region similar to what we saw after the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.
We must support the expansion of democratic freedoms and respect the results of
elections in Egypt and elsewhere, or else our ability to engage in democratic
development in the Middle East will wane. At the same time, however, we must be
willing to speak out when such rights and freedoms are threatened, as the
administration has done at times. Targeted support to civil society and other
interest groups is the best way to support opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood
and not necessarily threaten the potential for a productive working
relationship with the current Egyptian government.  We also must find a way to employ a more nuanced policy that
specifically empowers moderate voices in Freedom and Justice and more generally
recognizes the reality of political Islam. This is where the most thought and
work is needed.


Slepin, Whitman College and independent researcher

The Egyptian military is one of the few
Egyptian institutions with which we have deep ties and long experience, though
Operation Bright Star and other initiatives. The US does not have much ability
to effect change (for the better or otherwise) in Egypt, but it should be able
to leverage military ties (via aid and other, less exploitative means) to
quietly work towards a beneficial situation. The SCAF has handed things off,
but it is still part of the regime – maybe the real regime, depending on how
you want to look at it – and the need to appease its top leaders is still real.
The US has never been squeamish about working with despicable parties, so I’m
not sure why either Islamist governments or publicly obstreperous militaries
would be different. It seems to me that the biggest obstacle is that by intent,
most of the US-Egyptian military relationships are one-sided. Egyptian military
personnel have long been ordered not to give too much away to their US
counterparts, and this holds true for informal friendships as well.
Consequently, we only have vague notions of how the military thinks. Correcting
this imbalance is the real condition that needs to be addressed for any
military aid to have effects beyond simply improving Egypt’s military prowess
or largess. 

Beyond the military, and touching upon some of the other issues you’ve raised,
I’d recommend the US working for a Peace Corps presence in Egypt. Like the
above, the Peace Corps creates personal ties that over the long run do more to
promote friendship and US value-sharing, and even create the institutions and
organizations that the US may one day be able to leverage, than most other
diplomatic or economic means. A Peace Corps mission could help in shoring up
education and health systems badly in need of help, and at a fraction of the
cost of other solutions. It may also be able to operate "under the
radar," without raising hackles like more overtly political organizations
(NDI, IRI, or even USAID).


Thanks to all who participated, over Twitter or email or in person, and I’m completely open to offering a Round Two if more of you would like to offer your thoughts!

Oh, and on getting what you want, who could forget Pope Cerebus… thanks to whoever uploaded this.