Washington Watch: Stumbling on Egypt’s road to democracy

Standing in the way are leaders of 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.”

Mohamed Morsy supporters in Tahrir 390 (photo credit: Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters)
Mohamed Morsy supporters in Tahrir 390
(photo credit: Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters)
Egyptians made Mohamed Morsy their first democratically elected president, but that’s no guarantee they will get a democratic government.
Standing in the way are leaders of 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 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 US government for not doing enough to keep Mubarak in power. But, with his health failing and deaf to the legitimate demands of his people, his situation was 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.
Don’t be surprised to see some of Barack Obama’s political foes repeat the accusation that he abandoned Mubarak and try to blame him for the election of the first Islamist head of state in the Arab world. They may also repeat charges by some Egyptian secular and liberal groups that Washington endorsed Morsy and the Brotherhood and pressured the military to turn over power to the Islamist government.
The American-educated Morsy is “not a great supporter, fan of the United States,” according to former US Ambassador to Egypt Ned Walker. Instead, he is a “true believer” in the Muslim Brotherhood’s program of “topdown autocratic leadership” with anti-democratic components, he added.
Rep. David Dreier (R-California), an election monitor, told CNN a senior Brotherhood leader had “indicated” to him the group has no plan to scrap the Camp David accords.
Morsy, representing the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, won a narrow four-point victory over the secular Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s former prime minister, showing how deeply divided that country is. President Obama phoned both men on Sunday to urge them to work in “national unity” to mend the country’s wounds.
Obama did not specifically mention the treaty with Israel but implied as much 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, but that is not going to happen.
Just before last weekend’s 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 power and took charge of drafting a permanent constitution that is expected to protect its own power and interests.
There have been veiled threats from the administration that failure to turn over power could endanger Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion aid package, but in reality the 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 Monday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which in the past has tried to cut aid to Egypt (without leaving any fingerprints) only to run into opposition from the Israeli Embassy, sent to Capitol Hill an article suggesting Morsy intends to “revise” the Camp David accords with Israel and reopen diplomatic relations with Iran that 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 Morsy’s office, Egypt’s official news agency and several news outlets, including an Iranian rival.
One apparent purpose of the story (and its distribution?) was to drive a wedge between Morsy and the Israelis and Americans.
Morsy has told American officials that he has no intention of abrogating the treaty with Israel and said Sunday evening in his post-election speech that his government would “preserve international accords and obligations.”
Some in Congress’s Likud faction may try to put some restrictions on aid to Egypt or relations with the Morsy 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 who have been speaking with the military from all three countries.
“Up here we listen to the military people in the US and Israel and they want good relations with the Egyptians,” said a senior foreign policy staffer.
The Pentagon brass have been telling lawmakers “we need overflight rights, access to the Suez Canal, our ability to deal with any contingency in the region, our peacekeeping mission in the Sinai, our supply route to Afghanistan, the jobs and safety of thousands of American contractors servicing all the weapons systems we’ve delivered to Egypt for decades. And in this election year, don’t forget all the American companies doing business in Egypt,” this source said.
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 tell their American visitors that their own relationship is extremely close, in contrast to the hostility on the civilian side, sources told me.
Amb. Walker 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 the next stage.
That country may have elected a president, but he could turn out to be a figurehead with no power to govern. And then again....