Amid a chaotic post-revolution period, the United States on Wednesday pressed Egypt's interim military leadership to strengthen Egypt's partnership with Israel and stick to scheduled elections later this year, even though a new set of leaders much less friendly to the U.S. and the Jewish state may be the winners.
After a meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton went out of her way to describe the country's ruling military council as "an institution of stability and continuity," commending it for adhering to Egypt's 32-year-old peace agreement with Israel. She called the Camp David Accords "essential for stability and, of course, essential for Egypt's growth, prosperity and peaceful transition."
But alongside the praise she expressed some growing concerns with the military's domestic policies, specifically a decision to extend well into next year the emergency laws that were a mainstay of abuse during Hosni Mubarak's three-decade rule.
"We hope to see the law lifted sooner than that," Clinton told reporters, after her meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr. "We think that is an important step on the way to the rule of law, to the kind of system of checks and balances that are important in protecting the rights of the Egyptian people, to create the context for free and democratic elections."
The American demands on Egypt represent in some ways the twin set of hopes and fears with the movements for greater democracy in the Arab world. The Obama administration has championed those movements but hopes to corral their energy so that political transitions from Tunisia to Yemen don't slide back into military domination or create a powerful new wave of intolerant populism _ as occurred after Iran's Islamic revolution a little more than three decades ago.
The U.S. also hopes populism unleashed in Cairo and elsewhere does not spell the end of Arab alliances with Israel, which while always shallow and filled with suspicion were still a foundation of U.S. policy in the Middle East. With the fall of U.S.-backed autocrats such as Egypt's Mubarak, however, the U.S. may have less to offer Arab governments in return for their toleration of Israel.
Clinton promised Egypt the Obama administration's full support for a new beginning. She said the administration was aiming to get congressional support for $1 billion in debt relief for Egypt, so people "can invest that money into new projects that create jobs and give them a better standard of living." She rejected the call from some in Congress for new conditions on the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt. And she spoke of helping to create a network of community colleges in Egypt to provide training for new employment opportunities.
With Egypt, the United States is trying to lay the foundation for renewed relations with a future government that will be more democratic if less amenable to U.S. interests. Washington hopes to persuade Egypt's leaders to salvage ties with Israel and maintain counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts that may be deemed vital for American national security but not necessarily supported by the Egyptian people.
The fraying of relations with Israel has especially concerned the United States, which has been lobbying much of the world in recent weeks against a Palestinian bid for recognition as a state and U.N. membership. Egypt, which under Mubarak often played a key mediation role between the two sides, has come out determinedly for the Palestinian bid over fierce Israeli opposition.
In his opening remarks, Amr told reporters that Mideast peace talks needed to start as soon as possible "with clear terms of reference and with a clearly defined timeline," pointing the finger specifically at Israel for its approval Tuesday of 1,100 Jewish housing units in disputed east Jerusalem.
"Israeli illegal settlement activities continue to be an impediment in the road for peace, and we would like to see them stopped," he said.
Clinton praised Egypt's leaders for helping defuse tensions with Israel after protesters recently stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, and acknowledged the key role it expected the country to play in forging a two-state peace agreement after six decades of conflict.
"Egypt's leadership in the Arab world and in the region, and beyond, is key to regional progress," Clinton said. She cited the Israeli-Egyptian model of security cooperation as an example for an accord with the Palestinians.
Clinton reiterated her "very strong support for Egypt's ongoing democratic transition."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hit many of the same subjects in his meeting Wednesday with Amr. Pentagon press secretary George Little said Panetta expressed his appreciation for the Egyptian military's role in helping the people transition toward a new political future, including free elections.
The two men also talked about the prospects for greater stability in the Middle East, as well as Egypt's commitment to its treaty obligations with Israel, Little said.
With Egyptian elections around the corner, Washington's relations with Egypt will likely become more difficult. At stake is American influence in a crucial geopolitical space linking North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and how the U.S. projects power in a part of the world where al-Qaida and other Islamist extremists still pose a threat to the United States and where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to hamper American relations with Arab countries
Among American officials, the early hopes of a triumph for democracy and rule of law after Mubarak's February ouster, alongside a continuum of U.S.-Egyptian cooperation, have slipped somewhat amid increasingly worrying signs: the apparent chaos in the Israeli embassy storming, the arrest of demonstrators and bloggers, the extension of the Mubarak-era emergency law empowering authorities to detain people without charge and stamp out strikes and demonstrations.
The vote for Egypt's legislative People's Assembly starts Nov. 28 and the less powerful Shura Council on Jan. 29, with both parliamentary houses to begin their session in March. And well-organized Islamist parties could make significant gains, with the hardline Muslim Brotherhood likely to parlay any new power into a far tougher line on cooperation with the United States and Israel.
While any new government would likely honor the 1979 accords with Israel, the result may be one closer to cold peace than regional partnership. Neither the remnants of the old regime nor youth-driven secular groups are keen to assume the banner of Mubarak's unpopular legacy or ignore the voices on the streets which mobilized so forcefully against Mubarak.
Clinton conceded that starting a democracy from fresh is no easy task, and one fraught with pitfalls. "We're well aware, having been working at our own democracy for over 230 years, that this takes time," she said. "This takes persistence and patience, and it's often hard to have the latter in a time when there's so much pent-up demand and hope for a better future."
The U.S. can't push too hard right now against the fragile military council guiding the transition. For all its failings, the administration sees it as the best hope for a stable transition. A collapse in the reform process or a retrenchment away from free and fair elections, and toward a military junta, would provide a devastating example for a Middle East that is still largely in revolt.
With Syrian demonstrators desperately pressing for the end of Bashar Assad's regime, Yemen on the brink of an all-out civil war and Libya's opposition authorities seeking to destroy Moammar Gadhafi's remaining resistance, the U.S. is keen to hold up a successful democratic transition that provides an example to the region and safeguards American interests. Having both won't be easy.