The Key to Egyptian Democracy

The U.S. has to help NGO's in Egypt foster a democratic society.

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(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Tens of thousands of people attend a rally in Tahrir Square against ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

President Mohammed Morsi's July 2013 ouster has triggered a serious debate in Washington about the future of U.S. policy towards Egypt. While the Obama administration has yet to articulate a principled strategy in response to recent events, it is clear that a new approach is needed if the United States seeks the establishment of an Egyptian government that is democratically elected, respects the rights of minorities and women and is at peace with its neighbors in the Middle East. U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should advance a comprehensive strategy that encourages Egypt not only to peacefully transition to genuinely representative and democratic governance, but also to create a stronger and more inclusive civil society.

Minority rights are a central pillar of any representative democracy. Without guaranteed rights, the democratic process can result in little more than a justification for tyrannical rule. For example, Morsi – a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party – repeatedly consolidated power and pushed through a draft constitution that marginalized minorities after his election in June 2012. Likewise, in the month since Morsi's overthrow, Egypt's military has detained dozens of pro-Morsi supporters. The Washington Post reports that 100 have died as a result of conflicts with security forces.

If Egypt is to become a pluralistic society where Islamists and secular liberals can peacefully coexist, it is important that Washington assist Cairo to create non-governmental organizations that can help Egyptians to reconcile and protect their many opposing political forces.

[Read the U.S. news debate: Should foreign aid to Egypt be cut?]

A key obstacle, however, will be overcoming Egypt's stringent Mubarak-era laws targeting and restricting foreign NGOs. Under these laws, Egyptian security forces in December 2011 raided and effectively closed 10 NGO offices in the country – including U.S.-based Freedom House, International Center for Journalists, International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute – that were working to promote grassroots political activity. On June 4, 2013, an Egyptian court convicted and sentenced to jail 43 NGO workers, including 17 Americans, on bogus charges of operating in the country illegally and attempting to provoke unrest.

There has been virtually no voice for the development of pluralistic civil society in the nation since. As Freedom House recently wrote, U.S.-based NGO groups "have essentially been unable to function in the country, and the case has had a chilling effect on civil society activity in general, with reports that hundreds more Egyptian NGOs are being investigated."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

The Obama administration should make clear to Egypt's military generals and interim leaders – privately and, if needed, publicly – that repeal of the NGO law is an essential step forward. As Ambassador Dennis Ross, former senior director on Obama's National Security Council, recently stated: "One of the clearest signs that the military and the interim government are serious about building a fair and open society and advancing the cause of representative government would be to pardon those representatives of those civil society groups who were found guilty of violating Egyptian laws."

The importance of Egypt lifting the NGO law cannot be overstated. Elections, by themselves, do not guarantee a fair, equitable, and sustainable democracy. Moving forward, NGOs can play a key role promoting growth of both effective and transparent democratic institutions and representative political parties. At the same time, these groups can advise and assist Egyptian political blocs on the kinds of minority protections that should be included in the country's constitution.

Current U.S. law says that Washington should halt all foreign assistance to "the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d'état or decree," or in "a coup d'état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role." In the near term, it is critical U.S. policymakers and lawmakers conform to this law.

While the Obama administration recently delayed the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt, it has decided not to describe Morsi's removal as a coup. Given Secretary of State John Kerry's recent statement that the Egyptian military was "restoring democracy" by ousting Morsi from office, the Obama administration appears unlikely to change its decision anytime soon.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

After Egypt holds elections, Washington should alter how U.S. foreign assistance dollars are distributed to Cairo. In fiscal year 2014, the Obama administration requested $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, and $250 million in non-military and economic aid. The gross disparity between America's military and civilian assistance illustrates the comparative lack of emphasis that non-military aid has received from Washington over the years. Instead, policymakers and lawmakers should craft a new and comprehensive policy that ensures Cairo does not simply replace one military ruler with another.

Egypt's democratic experiment will take time to mature. During that time, it will require America's support. A revised approach reflective of both our morals and ideals would give genuine representative democracy a chance to thrive, and help ensure a stable future for the people of Egypt.

Patrick Christy is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative, where Josh Cohen is a research intern

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