U.S. Hones Warnings to Egypt as Military Stalls Transition
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and STEVEN LEE MYERS Published: November 16, 2011 CAIRO — Brazen attempts by Egypt’s interim military rulers to hold on to power long after elections have elicited a sharp reaction domestically and for the first time have prompted Washington to warn about the potential for new unrest. As part of its broader outreach, the Obama administration has also met with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group whose political party is poised to win a major role in the country’s new Parliament and remains the biggest political counterweight to the military council. Jacob Walles, a deputy assistant secretary of state, met for the first time this week with the leaders of the Brotherhood’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party at its new headquarters in Cairo. While American diplomats have had intermittent contacts for years with Brotherhood lawmakers in the Egyptian Parliament, officials here said Mr. Walles’s meeting appeared to underscore Mrs. Clinton’s pledges to cooperate with Islamist parties that respect democracy. Others said it might instead have been a sign that Washington simply realized that the Brotherhood was certain to play a crucial role in Egypt’s future and was likely to win a large bloc of seats in the parliamentary elections that begin this month. “They confirmed that they are keen to support the democratic process, and they will accept any results of the elections and deal with any government that respects human rights and the rights of women and minorities and the democratic process,” said Essam el-Erian, a veteran Brotherhood leader and the vice chairman of its new party, who met with Mr. Walles. “And we are keen and eager to say that we respect the democratic process and the rights of all people according to the Constitution and the law.” Administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private diplomatic exchanges, said they hoped that a combination of internal and external pressure on the council would persuade it to yield power and submit to civilian oversight. In addition to the public comments by Mrs. Clinton, other senior American officials have privately urged the council to revise its recent proposals to preserve power, the officials said. The officials noted that since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, the council’s leaders had repeatedly offered, then backed away from, some proposals only after street protests and public pressure, in a kind of prolonged back-and-forth that some noted reflected a true, if messy, democratic process taking root. But administration officials and Egyptian activists note worrying signs. The military core of Mr. Mubarak’s government has “reasserted itself again,” a senior administration official said. “We don’t have great expectations that this is going to be the creation of a democratic system,” the official said, referring to the coming elections. At best, the official added, the elections will be “a transition to a transition,” one that could leave the military as the de facto power in Egypt for years to come, as it was under Mr. Mubarak’s rule. The military has said that it intends to hold ultimate political power even after the election of a Parliament in the coming months, and that it will play a role in drafting the constitution as well. It has refused to lift the Mubarak-era “emergency law” allowing arrests without trial, and it has sent as many as 12,000 civilians to military trials. While the administration’s changes in tone risk upsetting a pivotal ally where anti-American sentiment — and, in some quarters, support for the military — runs high, they are also drawing rare praise from activists here who say they appreciate Washington’s help. “I think that Secretary of State Mrs. Clinton delivered a clear-cut message to the SCAF, and I think they got that message: that the SCAF is not an elected body and must deliver the authority and turn over power,” said Emad Gad, an analyst at the government-financed Al Ahram research institute and now a leader of the Social Democratic Party. Mr. Gad contended that over the long term such pressure could only benefit the American relationship with a democratic Egypt. “I think more than 50 percent of the Egyptians think the SCAF is trying to kill the Egyptian revolution,” he said After months of mixing gentle pressure with broad support for the ruling military council, the Obama administration has sharpened its tone, senior administration officials say, expressing concern that the failure to move to civilian control could undermine the defining revolt of the Arab Spring. The shift in tone is part of a difficult balancing act for Washington, which is keen to preserve its ties to the military and its interests in the region, chiefly Egypt’s role in maintaining peace with Israel. But Washington also hopes to win favor with Egypt’s newly empowered political opposition while avoiding the appearance of endorsing the military’s stalled transition to democracy. All things considered, some here have suggested, the change in tone may be intended to placate Egyptian public opinion rather than actually press the military to give up power. “I think they are working for their own interests, particularly regarding the slow transition of power,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a prominent liberal activist who was among the leaders of the Egyptian revolution. “The U.S. wants to guarantee that the coming government will be on good terms — I won’t say loyal, but friendly — and the support for SCAF is related to that.” SCAF is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s ruling military council. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton underscored the shift in a speech last week that her aides later said was a deliberate warning to the military council, which assumed power after President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. The military had initially pledged to hand over control to civilians by September, but it now says that a presidential election will not occur before 2013. And last week it laid out a blueprint for the next constitution, giving the military special political powers and protection from civilian oversight into perpetuity. “If, over time, the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest, and Egyptians will have missed a historic opportunity,” Mrs. Clinton warned. “When unelected authorities say they want to be out of the business of governing,” the United States expects them “to lay out a clear road map” and “abide by it,” she added. Given Washington’s long support for Mr. Mubarak, and Mrs. Clinton’s comment last month approving of the military’s extended timetable for electing a civilian president, there was suspicion over Washington’s intentions. The shift occurred at the same time as a broader effort by the Obama administration to counter anti-American sentiment and reach out to opposition leaders across the political spectrum. The United States “wants to have the cake and eat it, too,” said Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to Washington, arguing that the United States wants to promote democracy without dealing with the pressure it would put on American interests in the region. The military’s attempts to protect its power and privileges indefinitely have created an awkward situation for Washington. The United States, through the Pentagon in particular, has long nurtured close ties with the Egyptian military, which still receives $1.3 billion in American aid each year. American officials hope that whatever government emerges will continue to support American policy, including maintaining ties with Israel and distance from Iran. At the same time, the United States’ standing in public opinion in Egypt and around the region continues to suffer because of decades of support for undemocratic governments like the military-backed system that controlled Egypt under Mr. Mubarak. Remaining aloof from the debate over the military’s future role here risks reinforcing those criticisms at a time when democratic changes are giving public opinion new weight.