U.S. ready to accept Egypt as democracy in name only
WASHINGTON — The White House is reluctantly preparing to accept an Egyptian government that could be a democracy in name only, two years after the United States supported the overthrow of its dictator in the name of democracy.
The United States is holding out hope that Egypt's military-backed interim leaders will cede power once elections scheduled for early next year are held and that an inclusive government will be formed under a publicly drafted constitution.
But if that doesn't happen — and the military's bloody crackdowns last week of political opponents dampen those hopes — the Obama administration cannot afford to distance itself from even an authoritarian Egypt.
“I don't think the White House was under the illusion that some sort of liberal and enlightened system was going to emerge from the ashes of the dictator in Egypt,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, who was deputy assistant secretary of State from 2009 to 2012.
She said the White House needs to develop a long-term strategy to nudge a military-run Egypt in a democratic direction. “This is not about getting an ideal democracy,” said Wittes, now director of the Saban Center for Mideast Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It's about the fact there will not be stability in Egypt without a more inclusive government.”
The Egyptian military, responding to popular unease over democratically elected President Mohamed Morsy's policies, overthrew the civilian government on July 3, setting up an interim government and calling for elections early next year.
U.S. officials believe it could take months, and perhaps years, for the Egyptian government to settle from the internal turmoil that began with the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 that ousted autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak. Washington has been working more closely to promote democracy there since then than it has in years past.
Egypt has long been a key ally, in large part because of its peace agreement with Israel, access to the Suez Canal and efforts to curb terrorism, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, a feared haven for militants. The White House welcomed Morsy's election last year as Egypt's first democratically chosen leader. But his relationship with President Obama has cooled as his conservative Islamist government offered only tepid support of women's freedoms, his Muslim Brotherhood supporters attacked protesters and old comments surfaced by Morsy referring to Jews as “bloodsuckers” and “pigs.”
Obama is reviewing the U.S. relationship with Egypt, and said in a CNN interview that aired on Friday that “there's no doubt that we can't return to business as usual, given what's happened.” Still, the U.S. officials said democracy remains a possibility for Egypt — even if it may take longer to emerge than U.S. leaders hope.
Nathan Brown, a political science and diplomacy professor at George Washington University, predicted that Egypt's next government will look “very much like the present one” but still call itself a democracy once it holds elections with civilian leaders and forms a multiparty system.
“The hope born in the 2011 uprising was that diverse political forces would come to an agreement on the rules of politics — ones that would protect human rights, provide for a popular voice in governance, and devise mechanisms of accountability, and do such things in ways that were broadly accepted,” Brown wrote. “That hope is not just dead; it was murdered by the country's feuding leaders.”