WASHINGTON – Members of Congress echoed Natan Sharansky’s prescription for a democratic transition in Egypt as the US scrambled to chart a course following the abdication of Hosni Mubarak last Friday.

“The United States must help Egyptians turn this democratic moment into a process that builds a government responsive to economic needs as well as demands for freedom,” said Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, after Mubarak’s ouster. “We know from recent experience in Gaza that this requires not just elections, but hard work to build a government that is transparent, accountable and broadly representative.”

Former Soviet dissident and current Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky made a similar point in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Friday.

“Freedom and democracy doesn’t mean elections. Democracy is about free elections and free society. You must have free institutions,” Sharansky told the Post, using the 2006 electoral victory of Hamas and its subsequent takeover of Gaza to illustrate his case.

Sharansky also argued that the US had a major role to play in steering that democratic process, particularly by conditioning the aid it gives to Egypt.

“If I was in the Senate, I would immediately pass a law maintaining US assistance to Egypt on condition that 20 percent of it goes to democratic reforms. What’s needed is real linkage,” he said. Though Congress has traditionally hesitated to link aid, largely at the behest of both Democratic and Republican White Houses, a blueprint budget for the rest of 2011 unveiled late on Friday does condition some aid on reform.

The budget includes the traditional $1.3 billion allocation in military aid for Egypt and up to $250 million in economic assistance “with the understanding that the government will undertake significant economic and democratic reforms,” according to an explanation put out by the office of Rep. Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee for foreign operations.

Gary Ackerman, ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee, stressed that “we must continue to closely scrutinize our assistance program to ensure that we are providing the maximum assistance to the transition process while also maintaining the maximum leverage on the Egyptian military to ensure a genuine democratic transition.”

Sharansky also called for clear guidelines that would exclude the Muslim Brotherhood if it did not commit to genuinely democratic principles. Several members of Congress have also articulated this position, including House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, who on Friday went even farther in urging the “unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists who may seek to exploit and hijack these events to gain power, oppress the Egyptian people, and do great harm to Egypt’s relationship with the United States, Israel and other free nations.”

The Obama administration, however, has been sending mixed signals on how it plans to handle the Islamist group.

Though Daniel Shapiro, the senior National Security Council adviser on the Middle East, stressed to Jewish groups that US policy was not to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, there have been other indications that the administration is open to some form of dialogue with the organization.

In his speech praising the nonviolent demonstrators for achieving change in Egypt, President Barack Obama said on Friday that “this transition must bring all of Egypt’s voices to the table.”

Whatever the eventual US position, its ties to military officials and the money it provides them will be America’s key leverage point. In the wake of the weekend’s turmoil, the US is still set to offer Egypt economic assistance. In addition to the 2011 levels outlined by Granger, Obama on Monday unveiled a 2012 budget request that would maintain that funding level, with $1.3b. in military funding and $250m. in economic aid.

“It gives us the freedom to respond as the situation evolves,” Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides explained in unveiling the proposed sums at the State Department on Monday. The more than $3b. in military assistance Israel is due to receive under a memorandum of understanding signed with the United States is also included in the president’s budget request.

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