Human rights were glaringly absent on the agenda of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in the run-up to Egypt's parliamentary elections scheduled for November 28.
U.S. officials fear that criticism of Egypt's dismal human rights record could jeopardize Egyptian support for the Middle East peace process and U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan encourage the country's popular Islamist opposition and set President Barak Obama up for a failure if Egypt ignores U.S. pressure.
Repression and electoral restrictions virtually guarantee that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) will win this month's elections, but the long-term risks of perpetuating authoritarian rule in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world may well prove costlier than the short-term benefits of turning a blind eye to flagrant violations of human rights.
Analysis of the feared risks, moreover, shows that they are grounded more in perception than in reality and that U.S. support for adherence to human rights is a battle that can be won over time rather than a zero-sum game. Divided over whether or not to participate in the elections, Egypt's foremost opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is going into the elections substantially weakened with many of its leaders in prison and a quarter of its candidates barred from standing as candidates. Egypt would risk U.S. Congressional support for its substantial annual aid package by backtracking on support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or logistics for U.S. military operations in the region or reducing intelligence. Similarly, Obama could avoid perceived failure by raising the human rights issue publicly without invoking threats or sanctions and instead taking a leaf out of former President George W. Bush's playbook.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would surely reject Obama's criticism. Nonetheless, Obama's public focus on human rights and democracy would shape debate in Egypt, encourage activists and influence perceptions of the United States. All in all, the United States has more to win by nudging Egyptian and Arab debate about democracy and human rights and more to lose by maintaining a policy that so far has exclusively identified it with repressive, corrupt regimes and significantly tarnished its image.