Red lines of US Egypt policy
How does the US administration view the forthcoming presidential elections in Egypt and the bases of bilateral relations, asks Ezzat Ibrahim in Washington
The US administration has been working hard to articulate a clear picture of the forthcoming presidential elections in Egypt, though US officials are insisting on the difficulty of predicting the course of events and the possible winner.
Over the last few weeks, US spokespersons have stopped short of commenting on the presidential campaigns or the statements delivered by the leading candidates on bilateral relations and the future of the Camp David Accords with Israel.
Since the approval of the release of instalments of military aid to Cairo last March, the White House and State Department have not made a significant statement on Egypt's political developments.
The US has refrained from reflecting on the candidates' sometimes fiery statements, with administration spokeswoman Victoria Noland saying last Friday that "I think we're not going to comment on their internal debate. I think it's a good and healthy thing that they're having a debate."
The spokesperson used the same argument that the US administration has used for months. "We're not going to get into the back and forth of what's happening in a campaign. People say things in a campaign, and then when they get elected they actually have to govern."
"We've made absolutely clear where we are on these elections. We want to see free, fair, transparent elections, and then we want to see whomever is elected represent the best interests of all Egyptians, the human rights, democracy, constitutional rights of all Egyptians. And, as we have said to all of the candidates that we've spoken with, we believe that it is in the best interest of Egypt to maintain its existing arrangements and regional responsibilities with neighbours."
However, in the present fragile situation the Republican-majority House of Representatives has intensified criticisms of US President Barack Obama's foreign policy towards Egypt, and it has been using the ongoing discussions regarding the budget for the 2013 fiscal year as a way of expressing its concerns.
Steve Chabot, chair of the House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, showed his discontent with Obama's policies. "The administration, the Egyptians, or both, do not seem to have a grasp of the seriousness of the situation," Chabot said.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party camp has been defending the current policy. "The Middle East we knew for so long is dead, and a new region is being born. Like any new-born, we do not know what it will become, and, in truth, it is not for us to determine," Gary Ackerman, the ranking Democratic member on the subcommittee, said in a hearing last week.
For some months now, US diplomats have been talking to the leading candidates and their aides in Cairo, and some of the candidates have sent envoys to Washington to assure American policy-makers that mutual interests will be protected should they be elected president.
Undisclosed meetings have taken place with prominent candidates over the last few weeks, the visit of the Muslim Brotherhood delegation to Washington in late March opening the way for different political forces to discuss the future of US-Egyptian relations with their American counterparts without fear of public disenchantment.
Moreover, the US has decided to increase contacts with political figures and parties in Egypt regardless of the opinion of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The move reflects concerns in Washington regarding a possibly unexpected newcomer in the presidential palace in Cairo, and it is a precautionary step to contain Republican criticisms in case the situation does not produce stability in the Egyptian political system by 1 July.
"We have arrived at a crucial moment in Egypt's transition," Jeffrey D Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, told Congress last week, explaining Washington's goals for the transitional process.
"We are looking to build a strong relationship with the next Egyptian government in order to engage them effectively on the entire range of our interests, including promoting respect for human rights, preserving the Peace Treaty with Israel, and building the kind of broad and deep relationship that will ensure that Egypt is a force for regional stability and peace long into the future," Feltman said.
However, the earlier NGO funding crisis still haunts the bilateral relationship, even though the US defendants were allowed to leave Egypt. "We continue to call on the Egyptian government to drop all charges against the employees of non-governmental organisations [NGOs], and want to work with the incoming democratically-elected Egyptian government to protect all basic freedoms, particularly the freedom of association, through a revised NGO law that meets international standards," Feltman added.
Another concern is the Egyptian economy's ability to make a quick adjustment once there is a new president. US officials have raised this issue with every Egyptian official visiting Washington over the last few months, Feltman saying that Egypt is facing "a projected financing gap of approximately $11 billion over the next 18 months. The prospect of a severe economic crisis represents a major risk to Egypt's transition, with the potential for serious negative consequences for the entire region."
"Our ability to pursue many of our goals in Egypt -- including encouraging reform, the protection of universal rights, and support for civil society -- and elsewhere in the region depends on a stable economic situation and avoiding a crisis."
The US administration is working to build support in Egypt for an IMF loan of $3.2 billion, which could help mitigate any fiscal crisis. However, Feltman said that "the IMF's support would be central to an international approach to help Egypt's economic stabilisation, but it will not be enough by itself to help Egypt close its financing gap. Other donors will be needed."
Although the US administration has been trying to refrain from interference in Egypt's presidential elections, some Washington insiders predict that US officials are supporting certain candidate(s), top among them Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League and former foreign minister under former president Hosni Mubarak.
US officials are likely to support Moussa for his pragmatic and liberal views, and he is seen as the least likely candidate to cause problems in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. However, it is not expected in the US that any future Egyptian president would start his term in office by confronting the US or Israel, since the domestic situation in Egypt would require all his attention.
The Muslim Brotherhood delegation assured the White House and State Department in particular that the Freedom and Justice Party, the group's political arm, would safeguard the bases of Egyptian-American relations and would keep Egypt's promises regarding the Camp David Accords.
For the United States, there are few major differences between the presidential candidates, though policy-makers and Congress would prefer a more liberal president without what could be perceived as a problematic ideological background, whether Islamist or Arab nationalist.
US officials want to avoid the scenario of the "Muslim Brotherhood takes all", possible if the Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Mursi, were to win the elections. According to some insiders in Washington, the US administration believes that it would be better for the United States to support a president from outside the parliamentary majority, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to ensure some sort of distribution of powers on the new political landscape.
Privately, each candidate has assured American officials that he is in favour of building stronger military relationships with the United States and has made it clear that regional stability would be built upon close ties between Cairo and Washington.
Such statements have softened the debate on the Arab Spring in the US and the possibility of an anti-America bloc emerging among the newly democratic countries in North Africa.
US strategists are now working hard to get ready for the day after the inauguration of a new president in Cairo. Until then, American officials and diplomats will be using their best manoeuvring skills to make sure that US interests are not damaged by a flawed statement or unprepared speech.