by Gregory L. Aftandilian
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As the Obama administration seeks to reorient its policy approach to the Middle East and improve relations with the region, the U.S.-Egypt relationship will inevitably be at the heart of that effort. This has already been demonstrated, as Hillary Clinton began her first visit to the Middle East as Secretary of State with a stop in Egypt. Meanwhile, President Mubarak will on May 26 make his first visit to the White House in more than five years. President Obama has also announced that he has chosen Egypt as the location for a major address to the Muslim world on June 4. U.S. interests in the Middle East are best served by a strong U.S. relationship with a strong Egypt.
Meanwhile, this is also a critical moment in Egypt. Recent years have seen increasing signs of public discontent with the status quo, accompanied by a series of regressive measures by the Egyptian regime. The aging President Mubarak, now 81 years old, is unlikely to serve beyond the end of his current term in 2011, raising the question of succession and increasing the importance of reform efforts that might breathe new life into Egypt's political system. This moment of transition in Egypt, following the change in American administrations, can and should be viewed as a genuine opportunity for reform. It is also fraught with risk if reforms are further delayed.
Given longstanding American policy, the U.S. cannot be neutral on reform and human rights in Egypt. As a large stakeholder providing the Egyptian government with more than $1.5 billion in aid annually, the United States will, by default, be on the side of the authoritarian status quo if it does not demonstrate a commitment to the rights of the Egyptian people. On the other hand, the U.S. relationship with the Egyptian regime also serves American strategic interests, and any attempt to promote democracy that neglects the importance of the bilateral relationship is unlikely to succeed.
What is needed is a middle ground "“ a new strategy for American policy toward Egypt that neither neglects concerns for human rights and democracy nor pursues them in isolation from other policy priorities. By more thoroughly integrating U.S. support for gradual democratic reform into the broader bilateral policy, such efforts can be made more consistent over time and, ultimately, more effective.
To identify the elements of such a strategy, the Project on Middle East Democracy convened a series of roundtable discussions in Washington among leading American, Egyptian, and European policy experts, advocates, and analysts to explore ideas for a new policy approach to Egypt. The result, as outlined in this publication, is a new, integrated strategy for supporting Egyptian democracy through a variety of policy instruments.
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Gregory L. Aftandilian is currently an independent consultant and writer, having spent over twenty years in government service, most recently as foreign policy adviser to Congressman Chris Van Hollen (2007-2008), professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, foreign policy adviser to Senator Paul Sarbanes (2000-2004), and foreign policy fellow to Senator Edward Kennedy (1999).Â Prior to his positions on Capitol Hill, Mr. Aftandilian worked for thirteen years as a Middle East analyst at the U.S. Department of State, specializing on Egyptian affairs.Â His other government experiences include analytical work for the U.S. Department of Defense and the Library of Congress.
Mr. Aftandilian was also a research fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (2006-2007) and an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (1991-1992) in New York, where he wrote the book, Egypt's Bid for Arab Leadership. Implications for U.S. Policy.Â In addition, Mr. Aftandilian was as a senior adviser on Middle East affairs for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, and has taught courses at Boston University and Northeastern University.Â He holds a B.A. in History from Dartmouth College, an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago, and an M.S. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.