May 21 (Bloomberg) -- U.S.-Egypt ties have become snarled over the past year. Many Egyptians resent the U.S. because it supported the deposed regime of Hosni Mubarak. And the U.S. has struggled for a coherent response to the country’s back-and-forth dance with democracy under transitional military rule.
The Egyptian presidential election May 23 and 24, with a runoff June 16 and 17 if necessary, offers a chance to revive the relationship.
For the last few months, Egypt’s relationship with the U.S. has been stuck, overshadowed by the military government’s prosecution of staff from 10 foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (including Americans) working to build civil society in Egypt. In response, the Obama administration, hewing to a Congressional mandate, suspended the annual $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt.
After Egyptian authorities allowed U.S. staff of the NGOs to leave the country, the administration controversially used a national security waiver to restore the $1.3 billion military portion of the aid. Another $250 million in economic support remains frozen. Of equal import, negotiations over $1 billion in debt forgiveness remain on hold.
Beyond the monetary worth of this support, its restoration would signal America’s commitment to Egypt. Despite the undercurrent of anti-Americanism, the U.S. stamp of approval remains of value to any government trying to boost tourism, investment and aid from other donors. More than a year of tumult has taken a toll on all three.
So how do we get things back on track? Before restoring the aid and resuming debt talks, the U.S. should impose one condition only: that the military council truly cedes power to a civilian government.
True, some questions about military power will remain unanswered until Egypt completes the new constitution a parliamentary-designated assembly is working on. Still, whether the generals will cling to power or honor the democratic process should be fairly clear within weeks of an election result. If it’s the latter, that should reassure the U.S. Congress that Egypt is moving in the right direction and permit the normalization of the assistance package.
Some members of Congress may want to condition resumption of economic aid and debt talks on the civilian government stopping the NGO prosecutions. Many Egyptians argue that would be an improper demand, since separation of executive and judicial functions is a tenet of good government. There is merit to this case, even if the cabinet minister who set the prosecutions in motion just wanted to distract attention from the transitional government’s failings. Thus, a better position for the U.S. would be to express hope that the Egyptian judiciary deals with the cases fairly. If it doesn’t, there will be time to object later.
The U.S. should, however, press the new government for a clear sign that it will not attack those who seek to help build democracy in Egypt. Since 2006, more than 300 Egyptian NGOs received foreign funding, according to the Egyptian Justice Ministry. In countries like Egypt, with its long history of authoritarianism, groups that support civil society lean on overseas funding because would-be local donors fear state retribution.
A new government should ask Parliament to lift the current restrictive laws on the establishment and registration of NGOs and draft a new code guaranteeing the right of such organizations to operate freely.
For its part, as we have argued before, the U.S. should treat whichever candidate wins the presidential election just as it would its first preference, even if the victor is Islamist. Having failed to do so after balloting in Algeria and the Palestinian territories, the U.S. has lost leverage in the Arab world. Egypt’s vote presents an opportunity to dispel the idea that the U.S. supports free and fair elections only if it likes the outcome.
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