The Obama administration is facing one of the biggest tests of its commitment to promoting democracy and human rights in the Arab world since the uprisings of the Arab Spring, over one year ago.
The administration must decide, pursuant to the 2012 appropriations law, whether the Secretary of State will certify that Egypt is meeting specified human rights conditions before $1.3 billion of military and other foreign assistance can be paid over to the Egyptian government.
It is impossible for the administration to say honestly that these conditions are being met, in view of the continuing attacks and prosecutions of independent civil society organizations and human rights activists in Egypt.
Moreover, Egypt's democratic transition remains far from complete. Now is not the time for giving Egypt's current rulers, who are mostly holdovers from the Mubarak era dictatorship, the U.S. government's seal of approval. That is exactly how the release of U.S. aid would be seen by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and other representatives of the old order in Cairo.
Nevertheless, pressure is building in Washington for the administration to move forward with approving the aid. The Pentagon is reported to be expressing concerns about losses to American suppliers and arms manufacturers if the aid is held up, and Egypt's rulers delivered, albeit partially, on their pledge to allow American and other international employees of international human rights and democracy organizations facing prosecution to leave the country. Egypt again demonstrated its strategic value to the United States last week by brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants to put at least a temporary end to escalating exchanges of fire across the border between southern Israel and the Gaza Strip.
A peaceful democratic transition in Egypt is in the national interest of the United States, and this is the strategic goal which advances stability in Egypt over the longer term and should guide policy making.
The U.S. government should not delude itself that it can protect its strategic interests by jettisoning its values. Indeed, no such return to the failed policies of the past, balancing security and strategic interests against support for advancing human rights and democracy, is necessary or desirable.
Ignoring the human rights and democracy conditions that Congress has placed on U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt would be seen as the U.S. government giving its unconditional support to anti-democratic forces in Egypt. It would be a severe blow to any pretensions the U.S. government may have to be seen as a supporter of universal values of human rights and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa and around the world.
Moreover, disregarding universal values does not yield any strategic advantage for the United States. The best hope for America to have a reliable strategic partner in Egypt in the years ahead is for Egypt's democratic transition to succeed and for a representative government to emerge in Cairo that serves the legitimate interests of its people. Continuing conflict between the military and newly empowered elected bodies is not a recipe for any kind of stability, and political instability in Egypt brings with it the threat of increasing political violence, including heightened insecurity for Egypt's vulnerable religious minorities and fertile ground for the growth of violent religious extremism.
The long-standing aid relationship between the United States and Egypt provides many opportunities for the U.S. government to encourage positive change. High-handed threats to withhold or condition aid bring an understandable backlash from Egyptians of all backgrounds, who are concerned about foreign interference in their domestic affairs.
So, the challenge facing the administration is to find a way to use the aid relationship so that it serves the overriding U.S. strategic interest of a peaceful democratic transformation in Egypt.
The U.S. government needs to both send the message that it is continuing to stand ready to provide the Egyptian government with the economic assistance it desperately needs while also making clear that foreign assistance is inextricably tied to democratic change -- not because this is some capricious condition dreamt up by ill-intentioned western policy makers, but rather because it is a time-tested strategy that enshrining the rule of law, empowering representatives, accountable government and strengthening legal safeguards for basic rights and freedoms are the only ways to meet the legitimate aspirations of the millions of people in Egypt and beyond for human dignity.
Human Rights First recommends a new approach: A phased roll-out of the annual aid package. By linking payments to reform milestones that are scheduled to occur in the coming months, like the adoption of a constitution protecting basic rights and freedoms for all Egyptians, and the handover of power from the military to an elected civilian government, the U.S. government could have the flexibility it needs to respond to the challenges of tumultuous change in Egypt and the broader region. Under this approach, the administration could release part of the aid funds now, recognizing that some of the conditions, like the holding of free parliamentary elections, have been met, while also demonstrating its concern that the Egyptian government must do more to satisfy other conditions, including making progress in respect for freedoms of association and expression and for religious freedom.