WASHINGTON — The White House is reluctantly preparing to accept an Egyptian government that could be a democracy in name only, two years after the U.S. supported the overthrow of its dictator in the name of democracy.
The U.S. is still holding out hope that Egypt’s military-backed interim leaders will cede power once elections scheduled for early next year are held and that an inclusive government will be formed under a publicly drafted constitution.
But if that doesn’t happen — and the military’s bloody crackdowns last week of political opponents dampen those hopes — the Obama administration cannot afford to distance itself from even an authoritarian Egypt.
“I don’t think the White House was under the illusion that some sort of liberal and enlightened system was going to emerge from the ashes of the dictator in Egypt,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state from 2009 to 2012.
She said the White House needs to develop a long-term strategy to nudge a military-run Egypt in a democratic direction. “This is not about getting an ideal democracy,” said Wittes, now director of the Saban Center for Mideast policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s about the fact there will not be stability in Egypt without a more inclusive government.”
The Egyptian military, responding to popular unease over democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi’s policies, overthrew the civilian government on July 3, setting up an interim government and calling for elections early next year.
U.S. officials believe it could be months, and perhaps years, for the Egyptian government to settle from the internal turmoil that began with the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 that ousted autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak. Washington has been working more closely to promote democracy there since then than it has in years past.
Egypt has long been a key U.S. ally, in large part because of its peace agreement with Israel, access to the Suez Canal and efforts to curb terrorism, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, a feared haven for militants. The White House welcomed Morsi’s election last year as Egypt’s first democratically chosen leader. But his relationship with President Obama has cooled as his conservative Islamist government offered only tepid support of women’s freedoms, his Muslim Brotherhood supporters attacked protesters and old comments surfaced by Morsi referring to Jews as “bloodsuckers” and “pigs.”
Obama is reviewing the U.S. relationship with Egypt, and said in a CNN interview aired last Friday that “there’s no doubt that we can’t return to business as usual, given what’s happened.” Still, the U.S. officials said democracy remains a possibility for Egypt — even if it may take longer than U.S. leaders hope to emerge.
“We still believe there is a window of opportunity for the Egyptian people to return, to move toward a path to sustainable democracy,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters last week. “We still feel that that’s in the best interests of the Egyptian people and that it’s possible.”
But, she added: “the events on the ground and what steps are taken or not taken matter, very much matter.”
The White House is expected to announce as early as this week that it is suspending shipment of Apache helicopters to Egypt, valued at about $500 million. The U.S. already has suspended delivery of four F-16 fighter jets and canceled military exercises with Egypt in a rebuke to its leaders.
But the U.S. has continued shipments of spare parts for American weapons systems that are used by Egyptian forces, and has no plans to scrap millions of dollars in aid to non-government organizations or to help boost democracy and rule of law in Egypt.
Washington had a robust relationship with Mubarak for years before he was ousted, and U.S. officials predict that that would resume if efforts toward democracy fail. Mubarak was released last week from prison after corruption charges against him were dropped.
By contrast, Morsi is being held in custody.
Last Friday, Egypt’s interim government released a first draft of its national constitution that is being amended in a first step toward changing the Islamist-backed charter that fueled opposition to Morsi.
Experts are divided on whether its effects will be profoundly different from the constitution produced under Morsi, but say the process of drawing it up has been as secretive and exclusive as the previous one — if not more so.
A 50-person political committee tasked to draft the new constitution, for example, includes only two seats for Islamist parties — even though they account for at least 20 percent of Egypt’s population. And an interim constitution that was issued just days after Morsi was ousted has been widely criticized for being written in secret, by unidentified people in the new leadership who sought to preserve power for limited interests instead of fostering democracy.
Journalists also are under fire. At least five have been killed, and countless others intimidated, by the Egyptian military while covering the unrest.
Though the interim government roadmap for the future includes hallmarks of democracy — including popular elections to approve the new constitution and elect a parliament and president — protests and demonstrations are the most visible evidence of a free and open society in Egypt.
Nathan Brown, a political science and diplomacy professor at George Washington University, predicted that Egypt’s next government will look “very much like the present one” but still call itself a democracy after it holds elections with civilian leaders and creates a multiparty system.
However, “its actual working will enable rather than avoid repression,” Brown wrote in an analysis last week.
“The hope born in the 2011 uprising was that diverse political forces would come to an agreement on the rules of politics — ones that would protect human rights, provide for a popular voice in governance, and devise mechanisms of accountability, and do such things in ways that were broadly accepted,” Brown wrote. “That hope is not just dead; it was murdered by the country’s feuding leaders.”