By all credible indicators, a democratic Egypt appears more remote than ever, but President Barack Obama’s administration doesn’t seem ready to admit this grim truth. A review of key statements on Egypt during the past month shows the wishful thinking shaping the discourse as the United States struggles to reconcile its declared support for democracy with the reality unfolding on the ground.
Of course, what the United States says about Egypt’s democratic progress is only one dimension of a complex bilateral relationship that revolves, as President Obama has said, around cooperation on core security interests. But such rhetoric is a primary way in which the United States communicates its position on democracy and human rights, the most prominent and divisive issue in US-Egypt ties, and the one that President Obama has asserted will determine future US support for the country. Thus the statements are worth a close look.
On several occasions during March, US officials spoke out forthrightly about serious human rights violations, at times sharply criticizing the Egyptian government. But they tended to cast them as “setbacks” in some broader democratic march forward, rather than as yet more evidence of the reconstruction of an authoritarian system following the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-led elected government on July 3, 2013. The administration continued to argue that “engagement” with the Egyptian authorities is the best way to help bring about positive change, despite the meager results so far. And despite its previous calls for a return to democratically-elected civilian leadership, the United States avoided comment when Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave his long-awaited announcement on March 26 that he had resigned as defense minister to run for president. Sisi, who was the architect of the Brotherhood’s ouster and effectively has presided over the harsh crackdown since, appeared in uniform for his announcement, underscoring his military role. His inevitable victory is likely to strengthen the military-security establishment’s dominance over politics for the foreseeable future. Yet, US officials continued to talk about a “democratic roadmap” and a “democratic transition” in Egypt, while at the same time subtly lowering the criteria for what democratic progress would entail.
- On March 3, President Obama commented on Egypt during a press briefing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Breaking his five-month public silence on Egypt, Obama struck an upbeat tone, saying “…we have the opportunity…to move beyond recent events over the last several years to a point in which once again there is a legitimate path towards political transition.” He did not refer to reports of widespread human rights abuses or explain why this turn of the wheel in post-Mubarak politics would be more “legitimate” than earlier ones.
- On March 5, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting Benjamin Rhodes, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment, said, “We want to maintain this relationship, and if Egypt can follow a path that restores an elected democratic government, and starts to respect the rights of people, then we can broaden out from that foundation.” His description of US aspirations for Egypt’s new leadership omitted the adjective “civilian.” He defended “engagement” with the Egyptian government as the best way to “keep making the argument, keep pressing the case” on democracy and human rights.
- On March 7, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki voiced concerns about the “climate for freedom of expression, assembly and association” and condemned the “use of lethal force by security forces against demonstrators.”
- On March 11, Psaki expressed “deep concern” about reports that security forces had abused and beaten detained political activists, saying there is “no justification for such treatment.”
- On March 12, Secretary of State John Kerry had a much more positive message in a hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. Kerry indicated that the administration was prepared to restart at least some of the military aid suspended since last fall pending democratic improvements in Egypt. He said, “We want the interim transitional government to succeed…they need us to help us help them by implementing some of the reforms that we’ve been talking about with respect to inclusivity, journalist arrests, and so forth…I have had a number of phone conversations with the Foreign Minister and with Sisi…I am very, very hopeful that in very short order we’ll be able to move forward.”
- On March 24, in a rushed mass trial, an Egyptian court handed down death sentences for 529 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters accused of rioting and of killing a policeman—and burst Kerry’s reform bubble. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf expressed shock over the verdict. She described politically motivated arrests, detentions, and convictions as “pretty significant bumps in the road here as we’ve tried to work with Egypt to move its democratic transition forward.” In the same statement, she referred twice to a “democratic transition” and to “a country that’s moving toward democracy.” Harf asserted, “there are principles we stand up for…that we will continue pushing with the Egyptian government.”
- On March 25, Harf used tougher language in her press briefing, calling the verdict “outrageous…unconscionable, defying logic” and declaring that “everything that happens on the ground will play into the decision about where our assistance relationship goes from here…and there could be other repercussions.” Rejecting criticism that the administration was sending mixed messages because it had accepted last summer’s coup yet was condemning what followed from it, she argued that the United States had “made very clear our incredible disagreement with what [the military] did.” But then she backtracked, saying optimistically that, “July  was a turning point for Egypt that gave them a chance in a very tough situation, to make some changes and continue on a democratic transition.”
- On March 26, Kerry himself reacted to the mass death sentences in a strongly-worded statement focused on flawed legal procedure, saying he was “deeply, deeply troubled” and urging the Egyptian authorities to “remedy” the situation. Suggesting that he took Egyptian promises of democracy at face value and hinting that Egypt had broken reform promises made to him, Kerry said, “this news simply does reflect the values and goals to which the interim government has aspired publicly and privately.” The Secretary then said that adhering to the constitution and maintaining a fair criminal justice system were essential to a “legitimate” government (but not mentioning a democratic one). He did not characterize the verdicts as part of a broader trend of repression or refer to any potential consequences in bilateral relations.
- On March 27, responding to press queries about Sisi’s presidential run, Harf commented only on the electoral process, saying, “We’re going to take a look at the process for this election, how free, how fair, how transparent it is… All of that will go into our assessment of where Egypt is in this transition that has had, quite frankly, some bumps in the road over the past six, eight, nine months now.” She did not acknowledge the fact that, regardless of Sisi’s popularity among a large number of Egyptians, the climate of repression and intimidation, and the lack of neutrality of key state institutions, preclude a fair vote.
- Also on March 27, in a speech before the US-United Arab Emirates Business Council, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson said that the United States “supports Egyptian aspirations to have an elected government that respects universal rights and helps them address their economic challenges.” She did not use the adjectives “democratic” or “civilian.” She did not comment on the verdicts or other human rights abuses.
- On March 28, Rhodes said in remarks to the New York Times the United States was concerned about the “shockingly large” numbers of people sentenced to death, but continued to believe that stability in Egypt would come through “sticking to a democratic road map.”
Parsing these statements leads to several broader observations about US policy.
First, perhaps references to a “democratic transition” or “democratic roadmap” are just verbal slips and are not meant to reflect the actual US reading of the situation. Or perhaps they are intended to convey that the United States still supports such a transition as a long-term outcome in Egypt, even if Egypt has fallen far off the democratic rails. If this is the case, the White House should impose more clarity and discipline in the messaging. More likely, these references reveal a wishful thinking about what is actually happening in Egypt. A significant process of change is underway, but it has nothing to do with creating a democracy, and the sooner the United States acknowledges this, the better. Rhetoric that associates Egypt’s trajectory with a democratic transition is not only bad policy for Egypt, but also cheapens the US global message on democracy.
Second, while the administration appears uncomfortable with the situation in Egypt, or at least with the deteriorating rights environment, it does not yet see the country as an urgent problem requiring a policy course correction. An alternative to the current rather reactive policy would be a more pro-active strategy for confronting resurgent authoritarianism and for advancing democratic values and protecting human rights. But the administration believes that that the United States has very little ability to exert positive influence on Egypt’s internal situation. Thus it has not been compelled to examine more rigorously and creatively all the ways in which it could use its sources of leverage and influence (including its public rhetoric) to greater effect.
The administration may decide to keep military aid suspended until a less awkward moment, hoping that something positive will happen in Egypt soon to justify providing the weapons systems on hold for months. But then the United States likely will try to build a stronger relationship with President Sisi, convincing itself that he will improve the governance and rights situation (more wishful thinking). This relationship-building probably will require scaling back our democracy exhortations and standards, in order to reduce tensions with Cairo. The gravitational pull in US-Egypt ties, centered as they are on security cooperation, is always toward a strong (or at least a workable) government-to-government relationship. Under such circumstances, serious friction over divisive issues such as human rights is hard to sustain for too long. And Sisi would hardly fail to have noticed that since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, in the major disputes over democracy issues Washington has always blinked first. An upsurge of terrorism inside Egypt will only intensify this tendency.
Third, although the administration would prefer a democratic outcome in Egypt, it still does not see this as critical to US interests. The reality behind the rhetoric is that none of Egypt’s democratic failures in the past three tumultuous years have yet harmed the security center of the bilateral relationship. Observers worry that the situation in Egypt could be heading toward a disaster with terrible repercussions for the United States, and that placing too many of our eggs in this Egyptian regime’s basket is unwise. But until the Obama administration concludes that Egypt’s repression has reached intolerable levels, or that its internal politics directly threaten important US strategic interests, democracy and human rights will continue to be an appendage to the core policy, not an organizing principle. The United States will keep talking about democracy in Egypt, because constituencies inside and outside the administration will keep pressing for democracy to be a visible part of US policy. But until the United States reorients its policy, this rhetoric will mean little in the bigger picture, and the democracy message will continue to be as muddled as the situation in Egypt.
Amy Hawthorne is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.