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Historically, Washington has been more comfortable extolling democracy than accepting its consequences, particularly in the strategically important Middle East. Algerian democracy had no place in the “new world order” of former President George H.W. Bush. His administration backed a military coup against an elected Islamist parliament in Algeria. Palestinian democracy did not fit in the “Freedom Agenda” of George W. Bush, who refused to deal with the Hamas-led government Palestinian voters elected in 2006. Now, as Egyptians build their own democracy, the Obama administration is struggling to synch its policies with its early hopes for “A New Beginning” in U.S.-Muslim relations, particularly evident in this week’s New York visit by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi for the U.N. General Assembly.
Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was elected in 2005 with 6.3 million votes. No independent observers considered the contest free or fair, and Mubarak’s landslide 88 percent victory said more about his iron-fisted rule than his popularity. Prior to being ousted in February 2011, Mubarak met multiple times with U.S. President Barack Obama: in Egypt, before Obama delivered his speech at Cairo University, as well as at the White House for bilateral and multilateral discussions.
The 61-year old Morsi comes to the United Nations with far greater legitimacy. In June 13.2 million Egyptians (nearly 52 percent of voters) sent Morsi to the presidential palace. He thus enjoys the second largest democratic mandate of a sitting Middle East leader — after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who garnered 21.4 million voters in 2011). Perhaps not coincidentally (given the electoral appeal of Islamists across the region), Morsi shares with Erdogan a lifetime of involvement in his country’s leading moderate Islamist movement. But the processes that brought these men into office matter as much as the political programs they espouse. Obama called in 2009 for governments “that reflect the will of the people” and “maintain … power through consent, not coercion.” Mubarak would never have delivered, but Egyptian protesters did. After they ousted Mubarak, Obama correctly observed “that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.” Egyptians again underscored his point through competitive elections this past year.
But Morsi’s democratic bona fides have not brought a White House invitation or even a presidential tête-à-tête in Manhattan. The White House is reportedly avoiding Morsi partly because of Obama’s break-neck campaign schedule and mostly because Morsi failed to secure the US embassy in Cairo from rioters earlier this month. Undeterred, Morsi says he wants Egypt and the United States to be not just strategic allies, but friends. Ironically, America’s friendship may prove more elusive for a post-Mubarak and more democratic Egypt, where politicians like Morsi rise and fall through elections not repression.
Renowned Egyptian journalist and dissident Moustafa Amin once lamented that, “America allies itself with dictatorships because it is easy to deal with despots, while it is difficult to work with democratic states … America spends years negotiating with democracies, while it can reach agreement with an autocrat in just a few minutes.” His observation helps explains why relations between Obama and Morsi already differ dramatically from the ties between their forebears.
Former President Jimmy Carter sealed the present-day U.S.-Egyptian relationship with the Camp David Accords and Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. During the historic talks of 1978-1979, he capitalized on the ability of his unelected Egyptian counterpart to overrule advisors and constituents — bringing agreement in a few minutes. In a paroxysm of capitulation at Camp David, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat even told his delegation he would sign anything Carter gave him without reading it. Likewise, when it came to finalizing the treaty, the Egyptian leader gave Carter, in National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s words, “carte blanche for his subsequent negotiations with the Israelis.” After what Carter described as an exhausting three days of negotiations in Israel, he returned to Egypt for quick final approval: “There was some equivocation among his advisers, but after a few minutes Sadat interrupted to say, ‘This is satisfactory with me.'” Sadat did not live to savor the fruits of peace (he was assassinated six months before Israel finished withdrawing from the Sinai Peninsula). His successor, Mubarak, maintained the treaty and backed U.S. foreign policy while jailing his domestic opponents, including Morsi.
For U.S. officials the transition from Mubarak to Morsi will probably cause some headaches and certainly require a few tough conversations. Morsi is unlikely to summarily dismiss his lieutenants or give any U.S. president “carte blanche” where Egypt’s vital interests are concerned. Indeed, the Egyptian president declared before the United Nations General Assembly that Cairo would not tolerate foreign dictates:
“[T]his revolution, and all the ones preceding it and following it in the region, were triggered by the long struggle of authentic national movements that sought a life of pride and dignity for all citizens. It is thereby reflecting the wisdom of history, and is sending a clear warning to those attempting to put their interests before those of their peoples.”
His stance suggests it will no longer be “easy” for Washington to elicit Egyptian cooperation on Middle East diplomacy or security cooperation, nor should it be. Like in any country, the foreign policy of Egypt will be healthier when it reflects the will of the public, instead of the whims of a dictator — or his foreign patrons.
Although Morsi’s visit to New York captured headlines, the real watershed for U.S.-Egyptian relations lies ahead, in Washington. When the present campaign season is over, the Obama (or Romney) administration and congress will need to begin addressing Egypt not simply as an ally or a friend, but as an equal. Equality will mean appreciating the reciprocal benefits of the bilateral relationship. That, for example, while billions of dollars in military aid have gone to Egypt, the Pentagon has enjoyed invaluable overflight rights through Egyptian airspace and expedited passage through the Suez Canal. It will mean dealing with the Egyptian president and legislators as U.S. representatives expect to be treated when they visit Cairo. And it will mean recognizing that spreading democracy and development in the Middle East requires heeding the concerns of those who live there.
Jason Brownlee is an associate professor of Government and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. His research was supported in part by a Travel-Research-Engagement grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science. His most recent book is Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance.