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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
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
The Obama administration, however, has vowed to try to convince
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
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
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
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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