July 4th is the symbolic "Happy Birthday" for the United States. As Americans, we declared our freedom and emotionally separated ourselves from our rulers. It was not the birth of a two-party system, nor the birth of the election process. Moreover, July 4th is not the date we recognized the distinction between state and federal politics, or even the creation of our revered U.S. Constitution. Our constitution would emerge ten years later -- after the physical separation and the deaths of revolutionaries. We remain a relatively young nation.
Back then, we needed time to build our emotional and physical identity. So why is it that we are so critical of other nations, like Egypt and Tunisia, which have barely had a year to finalize their new constitutions, or a four-year term to test out their newly elected parties? When Tunisia and Egypt celebrate their Independence Days, I doubt that they are focusing on the specifics of political parties, local candidates, and drafting Constitutions. That is what elections are for, right?
Similar Goals, Different Party Motivations
For months the U.S. reviewed and predicted the outcomes of Egyptian and Tunisian elections and how they would impact the U.S. Islamist party interests factored into predictions, rightly or wrongly. Projections became reality.
The roles are now reversed. As the 2012 election approaches, U.S. candidates will be asked to outline their views and proposed policy toward countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, where Islam and Islamic parties are key issues. Like in the U.S., religious interpretation and political philosophies intersect at different points for various interest groups. In some countries we have reapplied the term "Islamist" groups or assuming a "Political Islam" orientation. The Muslim Brotherhood leads the Freedom and Justice Party and holds 235 of 498 seats. The large Islamist representation might result from the hard economic times and a veering away from centrist politics. This is not that different from the 2008 U.S. elections, considering that secular rhetoric, values and interpretations still follow candidates -- whether they contest in Egypt's elections or in the U.S.
Similar Party Motivations, Different Goals
Yet, just because the new Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, and Tunisia's winning Ennahda party find roots in Islam, does not mean the Islamic oriented parties will drive both countries towards a similar political and economic destiny. Nor will both push for the same in relating to the United States. Middle East experts point out that the Egyptian equation is much more complicated than the Tunisian equation.
First, there are religious minorities and ethnic minorities in Egypt. Second, there is a strong Salafi movement in Egypt. Third, the army operates differently in Egypt than it does in Tunisia. Fourth, both civil society and political elements in Egypt are questioning its increasing dependency on U.S. economic assistance. In contrast, Tunisia is working to increase its partnership with the U.S. by welcoming the Peace Corps as a vehicle for economic opportunities. Therefore, regardless of which U.S. party wins November 2012, U.S. interests are more concerned with how Egypt will move forward with the Camp David Accords that symbolize Egyptian-Israeli-U.S. engagement.
Conversely, learning about Tunisia's and Egypt's official views on the U.S. is easy -- one simply visits their respective websites. However, if one would like to gauge Tunisia's or Egypt's views on U.S. presidential elections, or understand how U.S. presidential candidates might impact relations with Tunisia or Egypt, then the dialogue becomes more difficult. Officially, foreign missions cannot discuss what they hope for in the U.S. November elections because they are "not allowed to comment on the internal matters of the host country." As understandable as their reasoning might be in the diplomatic realm, the question remains unanswered and requires a more creative quest for information.
Local Discussions on Egypt and Tunisia Do Not Mirror National Concerns
The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee selected the theme "Taking Charge. Moving Forward: Decision 2012" for this year's annual convention. In Washington, D.C., the U.S.-based advocacy organization held two distinct fora: one on U.S. Elections regarding civil rights and the other specifically on the Arab Spring countries. However, merging the two discussions reflected the larger American challenge of elevating relations with transitioning countries as a campaign issue. Typically, the issues of economy and employment rank in the top three regardless of which political party is in power. Perhaps it was no surprise that both the representatives from the Egyptian and Tunisian embassies were absent at both forums.
Specifically, panelists like Andrew Parasiliti argued that newly transitioned countries will not factor into the top priorities during presidential debates.
As Dr. Parasiliti, Executive Director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies stated, "Candidates and parties will engage as it is an opportunity [to engage] for those people" at the state level "but not analytically" at a higher policy level debate. Egypt and Tunisia's growing populist spirit and the extent to which Islamist parties might reflect the populist concerns will not serve as climactic discussions in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, or what are described in campaign language as "battleground states." Rather, it is up to local interest groups to activate their membership to try framing U.S. relations with Egypt and Tunisia as a priority in state caucuses. The same tactic applies to discussing the benefits in increasing communication with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and the Ennahda party of Tunisia.
Nonetheless, for the few million Arab Americans and additional couple million Muslim Americans, these groups still ask: How will candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney improve future relations with Egypt and Tunisia? To what extent will previous U.S. skepticism on Islamic political parties limit U.S. engagement with Egypt, Tunisia, and any other country that proceeds along a similar course?
It does not matter if Americans are pro-Romney or pro-Obama, they hold the same goal from different perspectives. When it comes to Tunisia, there is both potential gain and risk: how to rebuild the economic position of a country when the U.S. is facing economic difficulties of its own? When it comes to Egypt, there is risk: how to address Egypt's wish, not just the Muslim Brotherhood's wish, to renegotiate the terms of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty? These issues, among others, will make up the new emotional and physical identities of even the oldest civilizations in the world. Happy Birthday USA, and I hope to get the birthday evite to Tunisia's and Egypt's parties...