Clinton urged to press Egypt on freedoms

But will she listen?A group of former officials, human rights activists and Egypt experts have written to Secretary Clinton urging her to take the strongest stance on democracy in Egypt (or rather, the lack thereof) in the wake of Mubarak's illness and the coming presidential succession. The suggestions are below, and in a sense go further than even the Bush administration has gone. It is also a sober reminder that the Obama administration has basically done nothing on this issue since it came to power.
The key demands are changes to eligibility for elections, including presidential ones, which echo the call of Mohammed ElBaradei and other democracy activists. The call for international observers is also an entirely new step not adopted in 2005. Here are the recommendations:

Thus, for the upcoming legislative elections in June (upper house of parliament) and November 2010 (lower house), we urge you to consider the following:

  • Raising with the Egyptian government—privately but at the highest level—the U.S. hope and expectation that Egypt will hold genuinely competitive elections. Specifically:
    • All candidates, including opposition and independents, should be allowed to register and campaign freely, with access to the media.
    • The government should permit and facilitate monitoring by Egyptian NGOs and international observers.
    • Security forces should keep a distance from polling places and allow voters free access.
  • Allocating adequate assistance funds to support domestic and international monitors directly
  • Stating publicly that the United States government hopes to see free and fair elections that allow genuine and open competition

Looking toward the 2011 presidential election, the United States should also urge the Egyptian government to undertake legal and constitutional reforms to facilitate much broader voter participation and ease requirements for candidates to get on the ballot.  With more than a year to go, there is ample time for such changes. 

Madame Secretary, we urge you to take a leadership role on this issue. We believe a more democratic Egypt is in the interest of both the United States and Egypt, as such reforms would contribute to economic development and a safer region. With those goals in mind, we strongly encourage you to advance this agenda.

My only reservation about this letter is that Elliott Abrams, a man who encouraged the Bush administration to engage in criminal conspiracies against an elected government in Palestine, is a signatory. He is a disgrace to the United States. But it's good that this group has spoken out on this matter when we've seen over a year of dithering on these issues and a series of wrong-headed signals, from hosting Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo to accepting restrictions on NGO funding.

Speaking of which, the excellent Stephen McInerney of POMED has a brief alerting on democracy spending in Egypt, picking up on a scathing USAID audit of democracy and governance spending:

A clear lesson from the USAID audit is that the less the Egyptian government is involved with democracy and governance programming, the greater the opportunity for such programming to succeed. Many supporters of democracy hoped that, in response to this audit, USAID would reverse the sharp cuts in funding for civil society and its decision to fund only registered NGOs.  The new budget request for 2011, however, ignores key conclusions of the audit and continues in the direction of increased funding for programs done in conjunction with the Egyptian government and decreased funding given directly to civil society.  To be fair, other U.S. government institutions (such as the Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative and Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor) provide support for civil society and political competition but their resources are extremely limited as compared with those expended by USAID.

Do read the whole thing.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.