The Barack Obama administration is firmly not taking sides in Egypt’s presidential elections.
Speaking Wednesday at the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough stressed that “the choice in Egypt’s presidential election is for Egyptians alone. We’re committed to working with whomever is elected.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was equally noncommittal last week promising only to work with “Egypt’s democratically elected government.”
US reticence reflects a sense that anything the Barack Obama administration might say now would either be irrelevant or backfire. Yet clearly, there is deep concern in Washington about Egypt’s upcoming choice between an Islamist – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi – and Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister – Ahmad Shafiq.
“The US administration has become very microphone-shy,” Michelle Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said Tuesday (May 29) at a council event. “There’s a feeling right now that it’s best to say as little as possible.”
With many Egyptians complaining bitterly about the polarizing choice that awaits them in the run-off election June 16 and 17, it is hard to find much enthusiasm in the US for either Morsi, who won 25 percent of the vote in the first round, or Shafiq, who came second with 24 percent of some 5.7 million votes cast on May 23 and 24.
Marc Lynch, who directs Middle East studies at George Washington University, wrote Monday on his blog that his “personal hunch is that the US was quietly rooting for [former foreign minister and Arab League head Amr] Moussa,” a well-known personality on the international diplomatic scene who ran as a transitional figure.
Others were backing former Muslim Brother Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh as a consensus candidate who could unite secular liberals, devout Muslims and Copts. Yet a Nasserite, Hamdeen Sabbahi, came in third with 22 percent of the vote trailed by Fotouh with 18 percent and Moussa with 11 percent.
While Shafiq seems more likely than Morsi to maintain the close ties with the United States nurtured under Mubarak, analysts worry that a Shafiq victory would ignite new political unrest by those who fear that Egypt’s revolution is being strangled at birth.
“We’re going to see some problems after June 21 if Shafiq wins,” said Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at George Washington University’s School of Foreign Service. “Significant protests and violence.”
Morsi is considered more likely to win the run-off. Although personally uncharismatic, he has the backing of the best-organized political force in Egypt and is making efforts to broaden his appeal by reaching out to secular parties that led the revolution against the Mubarak regime.
Still, with 75 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament already controlled by the Brotherhood and even more hard-line Salafists, a Morsi presidency creates the prospect of an unhealthy concentration of power in the hands of religious parties – despite the fact that in the presidential elections, secular candidates attracted more than 50 percent of the votes.
If he wins, a President Morsi is unlikely to take immediate steps that would challenge Egypt’s relationship with the United States. Indeed, a parade of prominent Americans -- from Senators John McCain (R-Ariz) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to undersecretary of State William Burns – have met Brotherhood leaders since Mubarak’s ouster in part to guarantee such continuity.
A delegation from the group also recently visited Washington to try to calm fears that it would sever ties with the US or Israel or impose strict Islamic law. Abdul Mawgoud Rageh Dardery, a member of parliament from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party told a Washington audience in April that Egypt would respect the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and help the US broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
“There wouldn’t be a tectonic shift in the short-term in US-Egypt relations” should Morsi win, Shehata said Tuesday [May 29]. Over the longer term, however, Shehata said a Muslim Brotherhood president might be more likely to renegotiate aspects of the peace treaty that restricts Egypt’s right to station troops in the Sinai Desert.
Egypt might also seek changes in the “Bright Star” military exercises it holds regularly with the United States, in agreements that allow US military planes to overfly Egypt and ships to transit the Suez Canal and in the close counterterrorism cooperation that has included rendition of suspected Islamist radicals to Egyptian jails, Shehata said.
A number of US experts on Egypt also anticipate – and advocate – a shift in the composition of the $1.3 billion in military aid Egypt gets from the United States each year.
The US “should consider removing the earmark for military assistance,” Dunne said Tuesday. She said there should be more emphasis on free-trade agreements and encouraging US and other foreign investment in Egypt, moving away from what Dunne called the “patron-client relationship” that has characterized US-Egypt ties for more than three decades.
Rather than focusing on individuals, US officials and NGOs would be wiser to emphasize institutional changes that would strengthen the prospects for Egyptian democracy going forward.
One of the many anomalies about the Egyptian political process is that voters are choosing a new president without knowing exactly what powers he will wield. A constituent assembly chosen by parliament to write a new constitution was dissolved April 10 after a third of the members resigned to protest the body’s dominance by Islamists.
A temporary constitution put forward by the military council that has held sway in Egypt since Mubarak left office puts the president in charge of foreign policy and economic planning but leaves unclear major issues, said Yussef Auf, an Egyptian judge and fellow at American University’s Washington College of Law.
Among the key questions to be resolved in a new constitution is whether Egypt will continue a tradition of imperial presidents or strengthen the power of parliament by giving it the right to overrule presidential decisions and selection of government ministers. Auf said it is also unclear whether the prime minister must come from the party with a majority in parliament or whether the president can dissolve parliament.
Given Egypt’s history of more than 7,000 years of authoritarian rule, the emphasis should be on creating a new system that enshrines democratic institutions and the rule of law so that Egypt’s next president cannot rewrite the rules to stay in power the way Mubarak did.
Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Al-Monitor that the Obama administration is right not to back one candidate or another but instead to “support the democratic process and principles.”
“We don’t know exactly what a Morsi presidency will look like,” McInerney said. “We have concerns but I wouldn’t be despairing. There are still other forces in Egypt that will be pressuring the Brotherhood and balancing them.”
Barbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. She was correspondent for The Economist in Egypt from 1985-89 and visited Cairo frequently as senior diplomatic correspondent for USA Today from 1996-2008. She tweets at BarbaraSlavin1.