Getting US Democracy Promotion Right in Egypt

The near-term prospects for democracy in Egypt are bleak and US influence there is limited, but the United States can still take steps to promote democratic change over the longer term, argues Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Amy Hawthorne in a new issue brief, “Getting Democracy Promotion Right in Egypt.”   
Hawthorne contends that democratization in Egypt does matter for US security interests there.  Advancing these interests ultimately depends on a stable Egypt, which cannot be achieved without a consensus-based, rights-protecting system that reflects the diversity of Egypt’s polity and society.  Developing such a system will be a long and painful process, but it is the only path toward lasting stability and economic prosperity.  Hawthorne acknowledges that as long as Washington needs to deal with Egypt on a range of important security and strategic matters, democracy will never be the driver of US policy. US leverage is far from abundant, and the US role as a promoter of democracy in Egypt is complex and problematic.  But she argues that democracy should still be a cornerstone of US policy and that Washington could use what leverage and influence it does possess in a more strategic manner.

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The United States should signal its concerns more clearly about Egypt’s current repressive path, Hawthorne writes, through increased high-level attention to human rights issues.  The United States also should begin to restructure some aspects of its security relationship, and withhold the democratic legitimization and expanded economic engagement that the Egyptian government seeks until genuine democratic progress can be seen. The United States should also tap into one of its major assets –-American soft power—and foster more ties between young Egyptians and American higher education institutions, organizations of US civil society, and the private sector.  Over time, such people-to-people links could help to strengthen the constituency for democracy in Egypt, and would benefit the bilateral relationship in other ways. 

The author highlights four recommendations for the United States to redefine its engagement with Egypt in the face of the country’s current democratic reversal, and as part of a long-term strategy to support democratization:

  • Avoid praising Egypt for false democratic progress; deliver a more consistent, high-level message on the importance of fundamental human rights; pursue this diplomacy in close coordination with European allies
  • Restructure security assistance to reduce perks for Cairo and to direct more resources toward emerging security priorities; look to reduce US security dependence on Cairo in other ways
  • Develop with European partners an appealing economic engagement package that is contingent on democratic progress and stabilization
  • Support a significant expansion of exchanges, scholarships, and other people-to-people links between Egyptians and Americans