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U.S. should encourage respect in Egypt for individual rights

As Egypt's future takes shape, the U.S. should press the country to support democracy, uphold the rights of minorities and honor its international obligations.

August 27, 2012
  • Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, right, speaks with the head of military council Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. The Egyptian military and Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, have worked out an arrangement that moves the country in a democratic direction without -- so far -- abridging the rights of minorities or undermining Egypts international obligations.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, right, speaks with the head of military… (Sherief Abdul Monam / Egyptian…)

No manifestation of the "Arab Spring" was more dramatic than the popular uprising that ousted Egypt's longtime autocrat, Hosni Mubarak. Until recently, however, it was unclear whether a broad-based revolution would be sabotaged either by a military coup or by an elected Islamist government unwilling to govern in an inclusive way.

There will be many opportunities still for this revolution to go awry, but the Egyptian military and President Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, have worked out an arrangement that moves the country in a democratic direction without — so far — abridging the rights of minorities or undermining Egypt's international obligations. And although American influence over Egypt's political progression was always limited, the Obama administration deserves credit for using the leverage it did possess to press the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to cede some of its authority.

Egypt is a huge country and the cultural capital of the Arab world. It also plays a unique geopolitical role. When the late President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, he effectively eliminated the possibility of another general war in the Middle East. His successor, Mubarak, also played a constructive role on the world stage, but at home he presided over a corrupt and sometimes brutal regime whose violations of human rights were too often blinked at by his allies in the United States.

After Mubarak's departure, power was assumed by the already influential Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The council acquiesced in parliamentary elections in which the Brotherhood's party and other Islamists gained a commanding role, but later dissolved the parliament pursuant to a decision by a court of Mubarak-appointed judges. Then, minutes after the end of voting in a runoff presidential election, the council issued a decree giving the military authority to veto a presidential declaration of war, control of the national budget and immunity from presidential oversight.

Responding to those actions, the Obama administration, which had been criticized in Congress for approving continued military aid to Egypt, warned that anti-democratic decisions by the military "are naturally going to have an impact on the nature of our engagement." It's impossible to be sure whether that warning induced the military to adopt a more accommodating policy, but the fact is that the generals later made at least temporary peace with elected leaders. They did not resist decisions by Morsi to order the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the council, and to abrogate a constitutional declaration that gave the military widespread authority in executive matters.

The struggle between the military and Egypt's civilian leaders is likely to persist even after the adoption of a new constitution and further parliamentary elections. As in Turkey, the military in Egypt sees itself as the guardian of both national security and modernity. It also is heavily involved in the Egyptian economy. But, for now at least, the generals seem to have abandoned any effort to reduce Morsi to the status of a figurehead.

As for the president, he continues to insist that Egypt will abide by its international obligations, including the treaty with Israel. After militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers near the border with Israel, Morsi dismissed his intelligence chief and, in cooperation with the Egyptian military, is now working with the United States on new measures to rein in militants in the increasingly lawless Sinai.

Reassuring Israel is only one challenge facing Morsi. He also needs to demonstrate to Christians and other minorities that his Islamic government will protect their liberties. A perception that the new Egypt was indifferent to violence or indulgent of extremists would undermine not only U.S. financial support for Egypt but also the foreign tourism and investment on which its economy is so dependent.

Having only belatedly supported Mubarak's departure, the United States may have less leverage with Egypt's new civilian leaders than it does with that country's military. But when Morsi visits this country next month, President Obama should emphasize a reality that Morsi himself seems to understand: To prosper, the new Egypt must be not only democratic but also respectful of individual rights.

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