Guest Commentary: Egypt Reengagement Requires a New Perspective

February 23, 2012

As Libya has seen its dictatorial ruler tossed out of power in the Arab Spring, the West is not proceeding as though Gaddafi’s position is vacant and all other things are equal.  Why then does the United States seem to have this mentality with Egypt?

Before the U.S. can staunch the deterioration in worsening bilateral relationship and develop a solution on how to reengage with Egypt, we must first realize that this is not Mubarak’s regime.  The tired tactics of buying influence with generous, taxpayer funded military and economic assistance packages do not compute with the new Egyptian bureaucracy – one composed of administrators that showed up to work one day in February to find that their bosses had been fired.

The old strategy of buying influence with foreign aid packages isn’t going to work with the new Egyptian leadership for two reasons.

First, under the previous leadership, Mubarak and his coterie of loyalists were the only ones who truly benefitted from the generous annual distribution of U.S. tax dollars.  Second, because most ordinary Egyptians have never directly gained as a result of the money, many of them are skeptical of American foreign assistance dollars which, in their view, served chiefly to keep Mr. Mubarak and his cronies in power for three decades.

Complicating matters for the U.S. is that other countries are happy to develop ties with this new Egypt.  They too are eager to expand their sway in the region, can bring economic assistance, and can do so with far fewer political conditions, something very well organized factions within Egyptian political society are aware of, and counting on.  These circumstances will challenge U.S. primacy in Egyptian foreign policy, making it more difficult for us to ensure that Egypt maintains relations with Israel – the key cornerstone of any meaningful and lasting peace in the region.

There is also the matter of the recent dustup over the recent detention of foreign NGO staff in Egypt.  The NGOs have been charged with working in Egypt illegally, without a permit and engaging in the distribution of monies outside the parameters of accepted bilateral accords.  On the surface, it appears the charges may have some merit – although things are hardly as clear cut as either side would have you believe.

First, some of the NGO’s in question committed these alleged breaches of Egyptian law under the direction of their own leadership – as well as the blessing of the U.S. administration and the Mubarak government.  Mr. Mubarak allowed the organizations to operate and help teach the Egyptian people the basics of democracy, while using their presence as a lightning rod for political gain when it suited him.

During my time as IRI’s Director in Egypt, we trained political parties, NGO’s and human rights groups on topics that would allow them to effectively engage in their political system.  These activities were positive steps on a slow-moving path toward democracy, but some of our actions still fell outside of legal boundaries.  Egypt is an exception to how these groups function (I also worked in Latin America and in Southeast Asia, but with a formal understanding from the respective host governments), but we were permitted to operate, and when I left Sam LaHood joined IRI as my replacement in Egypt, for what we all believed would likely be business as usual.

However, something incredibly unexpected happened when Egyptians took to the streets and removed a dictator without firing a shot, shattering the misguided notion that Egyptians were happy with their dictatorship, setting off a wave of discontent in the region we now refer to as the “Arab Spring.”

Reengagement with Egypt is a process involving diplomacy, leadership, and a clear voice in Washington, with the solution centered in how all sides perceive and handle the crackdown on these NGO’s.

Without question, the regrettable Egyptian response to the NGO crisis has inflamed the situation.  But the U.S. should not make the same mistake.  Instead, our actions should be guided by our long-term interests in the region as we work to resolve the impasse – interests like Israel’s security and independence.

So far the initial reactions have been calls by some NGOs to immediately terminate U.S. democracy-promotion aid, and by shaming Egypt’s former advisers in Washington into dropping the Cairo government as a client.  This has only made back-channel communications with Congress and the administration more difficult, making the current mess even more complicated.

That is not to say that Egypt is innocent in all of this, and the proverbial jury is still out on how well Egypt’s fledgling judiciary will ultimately handle the high-profile case.

Regardless, the U.S. must rethink our approach to Egypt.  A lot has changed since the departure of Mr. Mubarak from the political scene.  And our framework for engagement should reflect that.

We should look for opportunities to work with Egypt’s new government to help build lasting democratic institutions.

What policymakers should not do is reinforce the deeply entrenched view among many Egyptians that America is simply willing to pay off whatever new regime is in charge, so long as the regime follows our marching orders.

The people of Egypt – subjected  to an oppressive ruler for decades – risked everything for the freedom to chart their own course at the ballot box.  The seeds of democracy planted during the Arab Spring have presented us with an important opportunity.  And it’s one we can’t afford to squander.

Carlos Espinosa is the Director of Government Relations at Blue Star Strategies (; He also served as the Country Director for the International Republican Institute in Egypt, Thailand, Malaysia, El Salvador, and Nicaragua

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