Stumbling on Egypts road to democracy

Egyptians made Mohamed Morsi their first democratically elected president, but that’s no guarantee they will get a democratic government.

Standing in the way are leaders of a military junta who don’t want to surrender power and the Muslim Brotherhood with an autocratic outlook that is embodied in its slogan, “Islam is the solution.”

Shortly after Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to resign 16 months ago, I wrote a column questioning whether Egypt was experiencing a genuine revolution or a military coup masquerading as one. That issue still is unsettled and back where it began, with thousands of demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Many Israelis and their American supporters blamed the U.S. government for not doing enough to keep Mubarak in power. But his health failing and his deafness to the legitimate demands of his people made his situation beyond rescue. He was given the final push by the military, which has been not only a pillar of Egyptian society for half a century but also of that country’s close relations with the United States and Israel.

The American-educated Morsi is “not a great supporter, fan of the United States,” according to former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Ned Walker. Instead, Walker added, Morsi is a “true believer” in the Muslim Brotherhood’s program of “top-down autocratic leadership” with anti-democratic components.

Morsi, representing the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, won a narrow 4-point victory June 24 over the secular Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s former prime minister, showing how deeply divided the country is. President Obama phoned both men to urge them to work in “national unity” to mend the country’s wounds.

Obama did not specifically mention the treaty with Israel but expressed his concern when he urged Egypt to continue its role “as a pillar of regional peace, security and stability.”

The administration has repeatedly called on the generals who have ruled for the past 16 months to honor their commitment to turn control over to the democratically elected civilian government by July 1. That is not going to happen.

Just before the presidential runoff, a Mubarak-appointed court dismissed the democratically elected Islamist-majority parliament, and the ruling junta effectively declared martial law, stripped the parliament and president of much of their powers and took charge of drafting a permanent constitution that is expected to protect its own power and interests.

Washington has issued veiled threats that failure to turn over power could endanger Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion aid package, but in reality U.S. aid is not in jeopardy.

There will be charges from the left about the administration’s failure to force the military to relinquish power and from the right for its failure to prevent the Islamists from gaining power.

On June 25, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which in the past has tried to cut aid to Egypt only to run into opposition from the Israeli Embassy, sent to Capitol Hill an article suggesting Morsi intends to “revise” the Camp David accords with Israel and reopen diplomatic relations with Iran, which were broken in 1980.

There are two problems with AIPAC’s “news item.” First is the source: FARS, the notoriously unreliable Iranian news agency. Second, it’s a hoax, debunked by Morsi’s office, Egypt’s official news agency and several news outlets, including an Iranian rival. One apparent purpose of the story (and perhaps its distribution) is to drive a wedge between Morsi and the Israelis and Americans.

Morsi has told American officials that he has no intention of abrogating the treaty with Israel. And in his post-election speech on June 24, he said his government would “preserve international accords and obligations.”

Some in Congress’s Likud-friendly faction may try to put restrictions on aid to Egypt or relations with the Morsi government in order to force Obama to appear to be defending the Islamist government during an election campaign in which Republicans are trying to portray Obama as pro-Muslim and anti-Israel.

Attempts to restrict aid to Egypt, however, will run into strong opposition from the Pentagon and the Israelis, according to Capitol Hill sources in touch with the military from all three countries.

“Up here we listen to the military people in the U.S. and Israel and they want good relations with the Egyptians,” said a senior foreign policy staffer.

The anti-Israel, anti-Semitic rhetoric that may come out of the new Egyptian government could get a lot worse than under Mubarak, but senior Israeli and Egyptian military officials say that their own relationship is extremely close, in contrast to the hostility on the civilian side, sources told me.

Walker, the former ambassador, told CNN the Egyptian military “is still very much in command” and will “continue to support the treaty with Israel.”

The Egyptian revolution, if that’s what it is, is not over but moving into its next stage. The country may have elected a president, but he could turn out to be a figurehead with no power to govern. Then again …

Douglas M. Bloomfield
is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.