Beyond all the strange and often disturbing news coming out of Egypt, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that Egypt's second-ever contested presidential election will take place three weeks from now on May 23 and 24, with the possibility of a run-off on June 16 - 17. This is a big deal for Egypt and the Middle East. It is also a moment of opportunity for the United States to put into practice a policy of supporting human rights and democracy.
Without overstating the powers of an election to address the myriad problems facing Egypt's new government, it is nonetheless a good thing that for the first time in decades Egypt seems likely to have a president and a parliament with some degree of a popular mandate.
The crises and collapses of authoritarian regimes across the region of the last 15 months -- not to mention the perpetual state of regional crisis of the past 60 years -- should have taught U.S. policymakers one lesson: the old formula of tolerating and colluding with authoritarianism in return for (an often illusory) stability does not work. American leaders have said as much often in recent years, but they have yet to match policies to rhetoric as they continue to back the some of the region's repressive regimes. For example, the Obama administration recently caved in issuing a waiver to deliver unconditionally $1.3 billion of assistance to the Egyptian military.
Egypt's first-ever contested presidential election hardly lived up to its description; it took place in September 2005, and the winner was Hosni Mubarak with a claimed 88.6 percent of the vote. His closest challenger, Ayman Nour, was reported to have received just 7 percent of the vote and was then the target of a politically motivated prosecution that resulted in his spending the next four years in prison.
This time around, the winner of the election is not pre-ordained. Egyptians can choose between nine candidates from across the political spectrum, many of whom have long records in public life that make them plausible occupants of Egypt's highest office. The two leading candidates, Amr Moussa, a former diplomat, foreign minister and Secretary General of the Arab League, and Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a prominent Islamist political figure who split with the Muslim Brotherhood last year and has since identified himself with liberal positions, including safeguarding the rights of Egypt's minority Christian community, would be leaders with whom the United States and the rest of the international community could do business.
Given the instability and uncertainty that has prevailed in Egypt in recent months, the election of either would be a far better outcome than the United States might have hoped for.
The Arab Spring created new opportunities in Tunisia and Egypt. For the first time U.S. efforts to promote human rights and democracy are going with the grain of political developments. For the time being at least, public opinion matters in these countries more than it has in the past. In Egypt's case, there will be a vastly more representative governments than could have been imagined just two years ago.
The U.S. government has an uphill struggle trying to persuade authoritarian governments to implement democratic reforms that would probably lead to their demise. This task is made even more difficult where other strategic considerations intrude, like the need to secure oil supplies (Saudi Arabia) or to avoid further costly, unpredictable military entanglement (Syria).
And yet there has been scant enthusiasm for this rare opportunity to support democratically elected governments. This seismic shift in the political landscape of one of America's closest regional allies has been met with an underwhelming and frankly insufficient policy response that has left Egypt's democrats wondering which side America is on. The message sent to the broader region is that the United States is still clinging to old, failed policies of collusion with authoritarianism.
It is not too late for the administration to change course. After the presidential election, the U.S. government will have a new partner in Egypt in the form of a civilian president and an elected parliament. (The balance of power between the two is yet to be determined as planned revision of the constitution is one of many necessary areas of reform that has stalled in this transitional phase.) The Egyptian military will still have extensive influence, but it should not wield the supreme executive power it has at present. For the foreseeable future U.S. assistance to the Egyptian military is likely to continue, not least because it is seen to guarantee continued peace with Israel. However, that leaves a chance to devise and implement bilateral and multilateral programs that would meet the Egyptian government's needs for economic assistance and to structure such assistance in ways that provide incentives and builds a constituency for liberal reforms and the rule of law.
The G8 Summit -- which will convene at Camp David on May 18 with the United States in the chair as host -- will provide an early opportunity for the U.S. government to put substance into its claimed support for peaceful democratic transitions in the region. This opportunity should not be wasted.