Congress and the White House are facing a dilemma as the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate has taken the lead in the initial round of Egypt’s first democratic presidential elections.
U.S. leaders are deeply troubled by the possibility that the Islamist party could roll back religious and women's rights and break ties with Israel if it takes the presidency after winning almost half the seats in Parliament. But they're also wary of ending up on the wrong side of history as democratic upheaval upends the Middle East.
Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi won about 25 percent of the vote according to preliminary results and will face a June 16-17 run-off against Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, former Egyptian Air Force commander Ahmed Shafiq. Morsi, an engineer who has taught in the U.S. and worked on NASA space shuttle engines in the 1980s, has promised to implement Islamic law even as his party touts itself as a moderate movement in meetings with U.S. and other foreign governments.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscored the tight rope the U.S. is walking in a statement issued after polls closed on Thursday.
“We look forward to working with Egypt's democratically elected government,” Clinton said. “We will continue to stand with the Egyptian people as they work to seize the promise of last year's uprising and build a democracy that reflects their values and traditions, respects universal human rights, and meets their aspirations for dignity and a better life.”
The mere fact that Clinton felt compelled to promise continued U.S. cooperation says a lot about America's difficult relations with the Middle East. After propping up authoritarian leaders for decades, the U.S. began an earnest push for democracy in the region under President George W. Bush.
The disconnect between lofty rhetoric and the political reality on the ground has at times been brutal, perhaps never more so than after the Islamist party Hamas — an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood — won legislative elections in Gaza in 2006.
The U.S. and other western powers reacted by cutting off foreign aid to the Palestinians, in effect punishing voters for their choice.
U.S. officials hope to avoid a repeat this time around.
“We have to find a way to hopefully be able to work with them,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) told National Journal upon returning from a trip to Egypt earlier this month.
He endorsed Congress's continued foreign aid for Egypt and advised against a “self-righteous early approach.”
“If we suddenly cut it off,” Kerry reportedly said, “we'd be sending a horrendous message that basically says, 'screw you, we're out of here.’ And they'll turn around and say, 'There's no reason to even think about the United States. Let's go work with Iran' or whoever it's going to be.”
That concern has bipartisan resonance.
The Senate Appropriations Committee this past week voted 29-1 this week for a foreign aid spending bill for next fiscal year that includes $1.55 billion in foreign aid for Egypt — $1.3 billion in military aid and another $250 million for economic development. The aid has strings attached, however, and lawmakers have made it clear they won't tolerate Egypt abandoning its 1979 peace agreement with Israel.
“When it comes to Egypt, we want this new democracy to work,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said during the mark-up. “But we're not going to fund a government that abrogates the treaty with Israel or basically undermines the long-standing peace relationship with Israel.”
Not all lawmakers have taken kindly to the series of uprisings across the region that have taken place since a 26-year-old fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire to protest stifling government oppression in December 2010.
“You want to know why we have an Arab Spring?” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) asked at a North Carolina fundraiser last fall. “Barack Obama has laid the table for an Arab Spring by demonstrating weakness from the United States of America.”
Most members, however, say working with Islamists is in America's interest.
“I would much rather have the Islamists in the tent — whatever party they're in — rather than like al Qaeda trying to blow up the tent,” said former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who also monitored the Egyptian elections.
“If democracy holds here, whatever parties are in power … will be accountable to the voters,” Harman said. “There are huge economic challenges in Egypt … and if those things are not remedied … and there is no tolerance for a diversity of views, I think voters will notice and changes will be made.
The former member of the Intelligence Committee added, “We'll still state our differences … but that should not interfere with our having a relationship and trying to persuade the government of Egypt to espouse policies that are more consistent with what we think is a universal human right.”