The Obama administration consulted last month with outside policy experts and former officials about promoting democracy in Egypt. Given that Egypt rigged its November 28 legislative elections, it seems the president could use all the help he can get. The fraudulent elections are a rebuke to the Obama administration, which quietly pressed for fair elections, and another setback for U.S. influence in the region. Moreover, they foreshadow the potential for even more dramatic problems when the Egyptian electorate goes to the polls next year to vote for president. It seems that will be either 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak or his son Gamal, who most observers expect will eventually take over the post. In any case, the presidential succession issue coupled with this round of parliamentary elections shows that Egyptian democracy is moving backwards, and the Obama administration is merely voting present.

It is illuminating to compare the current White House’s Cairo policy with the Bush administration’s handling of Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections, when Washington together with the EU employed carrots and sticks to push for freer and more open elections. For example, under private and public U.S. pressure, the Egyptian government licensed the country’s top liberal party, el-Ghad (“Tomorrow”). In January 2005, when the party’s leader and prominent democracy advocate Ayman Nour was jailed for advocating reform of the Egyptian constitution (an initiative that President Mubarak denounced as treacherous), Washington and its allies swiftly dispatched representatives to Egypt to express their disapproval. To encourage democratization, the Bush White House threatened to yank a supplemental aid bill and dangled new investment opportunities; when Nour was sentenced in late 2005 after running for president, the administration suspended talks on a free trade agreement.

Consequently, the 2005 elections were by most accounts the fairest in Egyptian history. Not only did voters elect numerous opposition party and independent candidates, but for the first time, the government allowed civil society representatives and Egypt’s independent judiciary to monitor the election.

The November parliamentary elections were a different story. Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration has refrained from publicly criticizing the Egyptian government for its democracy deficit. The White House had privately urged Mubarak not to extend the emergency laws that curtail political and press freedom, but was ignored—an early indication that the administration lacked an effective game plan for influencing the Mubarak government.

Stephen McInerney, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy, told me that the Mubarak regime wasn’t “even making an effort to look good.” Instead, the Egyptians did everything in their power to keep opposition candidates off the ballot. First, the government delayed announcing the actual date of elections and the rules, sowing confusion among potential candidates. Then, it demanded personal information from prospective candidates about their family members, some of them distant relatives, allowing candidates only a few days (including one when government offices were closed) to produce it. Some candidates who made it through the thicket of paperwork were even then denied a spot on the ballot. When judges ruled that candidates should be reinstated and ordered the election halted in 25 districts, the government ignored the rulings. The Egyptians would not allow international monitors, even as a number of other Arab countries of late, most recently Jordan, have permitted them.

Some democracy advocates expected that for all the preelection maneuvering, the Mubarak regime would at least ensure an orderly process at the polls, if only to give the elections an aura of credibility. But, as McInerney relates, “even with all that rigging,” election day was riddled with violence and widespread fraud. Pro-government thugs intimidated supporters of opposition candidates from getting to the polls. Many of the local Egyptian monitors lacked permits to gain access to the polling places, and those who did get in witnessed blatant ballot stuffing. The ruling National Democratic party also turned on some of its own when candidates failed to qualify under the NDP banner and attempted to run as independents. Government security forces roughed up these would-be independent candidates and their supporters.

All of this was accompanied by a heavy-handed campaign to suppress the local media that had begun months in advance of the elections. Ibrahim Eissa, an influential critic of the government, was fired before the elections from his position as editor of an ostensibly independent opposition newspaper after he refused to censor an article. Media outlets were closed and forced to move into government-owned buildings. As a result, media coverage, especially on TV, was more muted than in the past.

The Mubarak government succeeded in virtually eliminating opposition groups from the parliament. Out of 508 elected seats, non-NDP candidates won only a handful in the first round of voting. Muslim Brotherhood members (who can run as independents, although the party is banned) went from 88 seats to 1. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd party tried to boycott the runoff elections (which had light turnout), but their names remained on the ballots. The Muslim Brotherhood and four other, smaller, parties wound up with a single elected candidate apiece, leaving the NDP with a stranglehold on parliament. Minimizing opposition parties has the additional benefit of helping clear the way for next year’s presidential election, since candidates are required to hold membership in a party represented in parliament.

Elliott Abrams, the former deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration for global democracy strategy, told me that there are two reasons for the election abuses. First, he said, there’s the regime and its own concerns over the succession. “The end of the Mubarak era is near and the regime wanted to display iron control,” said Abrams. “But it’s also due in part to a reduction in U.S. pressure and U.S. influence. The administration’s downplaying of human rights policy generally, and its belief that the moribund Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’ requires that we buy Egyptian cooperation, led the White House to hold off serious criticism until after the voting—when it was too late to have an impact.”

It’s only now dawned on the administration that its “quiet” approach has failed. After the elections, the State Department and the White House issued several statements emphasizing that the elections were “disappointing” and failed to live up to international standards, while stressing America’s relationship with the Egyptian government, as well as the people of Egypt. NSC spokesman Mike Hammer detailed “the numerous reported irregularities at the polls, the lack of international monitors and the many problems encountered by domestic monitors, and the restrictions on the basic freedoms of association, speech and press.” Nevertheless, the administration’s tepid response to election fraud—the language employed and the secretary of state and president’s failure to comment personally—is in stark contrast to the Obama White House’s strong words used to “condemn” Israel earlier this year when its government issued building permits in Jerusalem.

“Egypt,” says McInerney, “is looking more like a police state, like Iraq under Saddam Hussein.” The Mubarak regime now faces increasingly frustrated opponents while the Obama administration has been dealt yet another setback in the Middle East.

“Talk to anyone in the region,” says Abrams. “Sunni or Shia, Israeli or Palestinian, Arabs or visiting Europeans—and you get the same reaction. America is viewed as a declining power in the region, apparently afraid to confront the ayatollahs and stop the Iranian nuclear program. The radicals have the wind at their back and people who rely on us are fearful or at best confused.”

The immediate challenge for the administration’s regional policy is to develop a strategy for influencing generally pro-U.S. countries like Egypt. Washington provides ample aid and military and diplomatic support that it can threaten to reduce. The administration alternatively can reward political freedom with additional aid, resumption of free trade negotiations and increased investment. But that would require a dramatic rethinking of the administration’s Egypt policy, which has to date largely relied on the American president’s speechifying. As Abrams puts it: “This administration is half over and I am still being asked ‘Who’s really making policy?’ ‘What really is their policy?’ and ‘How come they can’t make any course corrections when things are going this badly?’”

The president came to office convinced that America’s standing in the Middle East would get a boost from his supposed affinity with Muslims and his soaring rhetoric, or what in the wake of his 2009 speech to the Muslim world his aides called the “Cairo Effect.” And so, he attempted to ingratiate himself in the region, literally bowing before aging Arab despots. But by neglecting human rights and democracy promotion, Obama left the region more volatile and the United States less influential.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for the Washington Post.

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