By Jessica Rettig


Anyone frustrated with the current state of American politics should look to recent electoral troubles in Egypt for some comparison. The Egyptian people -- represented by potentially more than a hundred political parties -- hope to participate in the country's first legitimate, democratic elections in decades, an endeavor proving to be increasingly contentious in the aftermath of the nation's historic revolution.

While Egypt's presidential elections won't take place until at least next year, the country's parliamentary elections are scheduled to start on November 28. Both in process and outcome, those elections will be vital for Egypt's future. Not only will they decide who's in charge of drafting a new constitution following the fall of a longtime ruler, former President Hosni Mubarek; the elections will also weigh heavily on the future of U.S. relations with Egypt, which has been an important strategic ally in the Middle East region.

"Egypt is a country that matters significantly. It has a disproportionate impact on the future of the broader Middle East, so we certainly have an interest in having Egypt as an ally of the United States and continuing to have that relationship," says Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. "The outcome of the election is important, and we should look at it very closely."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Egypt on Tuesday, the latest outreach from top U.S. administration officials to Egypt's current military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF, which will oversee the elections before presumably handing control back to civilians. While careful to stay out of the politics, the Obama administration has been vocal with Egypt's military leaders in promoting free, transparent, and fair elections, which experts say is the first step in preserving American interests in the region. Though beyond messaging, American policymakers are also looking ahead to determine how they can retain influence in Egypt if -- and likely when -- certain groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization, gain power.

The $1.3 billion in foreign military aid is perhaps the strongest card that the United States can play in guiding a sound electoral process. Several members of Congress have proposed withholding aid should the upcoming elections not meet certain standards of transparency. The Senate's State Department appropriations bill for 2012, which passed through committee last month, for example, includes a contingency that "funds further the national interests of both countries," and that the Egyptian government holds "free and fair elections" and implements "policies to protect due process and freedoms of expression and association.""The Egyptian people have made themselves clear, and Egypt's military leaders have agreed, about the need for Democratic elections and other basic freedoms," said Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who chairs the subcommittee responsible for the bill, in a statement. "Going forward, the days of blank checks are over, and it is in the mutual interest of the Egyptian people and the United States to reinforce these rights as conditions for our aid."

The Obama administration, however, has vowed to try to convince Congress to protect Egypt's aid. Last week, after meeting with Egypt's foreign minister, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the administration's commitment. "We are against conditionality," she said. "We believe that the long-standing relationship between the United States and Egypt is of paramount importance to both of us. We support the democratic transition, and we don't want to do anything that in any way draws into question our relationship or our support."

Americans and other nations have put pressure on Egypt's military to allow international monitoring of the elections. According to the latest agreement between political parties and the military, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, foreign entities will be allowed to "view and follow" the elections, but the more involved election "monitoring" will still be prohibited to protect Egypt's sovereignty.

There are also concerns about what could happen if theological parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood and other more radical Islamist groups like the Salafists, take control of the parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has a long history in the country and a well-organized nationwide network of support, has a visible advantage in the upcoming elections, and several experts agree that a plurality in the new parliament is well within its reach. "The Muslim Brotherhood and allied groups are likely to do pretty well in the elections," Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and current fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. "They'll probably be the single largest group in a parliament."

Many policy makers worry that U.S. interests, and in particularly the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, could be compromised if Egypt's new constitution were to lean toward the more theocratic principles espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past, the brotherhood has condoned violence against Israel and the West, and although the group has shown a recent willingness to cooperate politically within Egypt, its history makes many cautious. According to Chabot, the United States should consider cutting off aid if Islamists do end up controlling the government. "We ought not to be sending money to Egypt if we have essentially a hostile government in control there," Chabot says. "If Islamists are in control of Egypt, then I think by definition you probably have a hostile government there whose foreign policy is going to be counter to U.S. interests."

Others disagree, claiming that U.S. influence could remain strong no matter who's in charge. "The Muslim Brotherhood is going to be more difficult to deal with than the Egypt we're used to, but I don't think it should be seen as a catastrophe," Riedel says.

The economic realities will limit how the future government will be able to interact with the West, according to Riedel. For instance, the country's economic reliance on tourism -- which has been deeply hurt by this year's revolution -- will likely prevent any future government from imposing strict Islamic laws in areas that affect Westerners, such as those dictating security or how foreigners can dress and behave, he says. Foreign aid and the Suez Canal also play into U.S. economic influence on future leaders.

Even though U.S. interests are certainly at stake, it would be unwise, says Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in Egyptian politics, for the United States to advocate for any party over another or to get involved beyond the bare electoral process. "There are more preferable and less preferable parties, but there are really no parties that seem eager to advance a very pro-American agenda," he says, adding that "the parties that we might be inclined to support are not likely to win."

It's best for now, Trager says, for America to stick to the broad, values-based messaging it's used to by promoting democratic and religious rights, and by making clear that "while it's Egypt's right to elect whoever it wants, it's America's right to not deal with those who are hostile."


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