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The US will choose between self-interest and values in Egypt

Encouraging the a stable, liberal democracy in Egypt should be one of the top priorities of John Kerry, as he deals with Egypt's political leaders.

As Egypt was waking up to yet more clashes between police and young people protesting in Cairo, Mansoura and Port Said, I was meeting with John Kerry, the new US Secretary of State, as part of a small group representing Egyptian civil society. In that meeting early on Sunday morning at the US ambassador's residence in Cairo, we discussed the challenges facing not only civil society but also the whole country under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood's representative, President Mohammed Morsi.

Our conversation with Mr Kerry covered many topics, including the controversial law that would regulate the relationship between non-governmental organisations and the government, human rights violations, the urgent need for security sector reform, the lack of political consensus, and the deteriorating economic situation.

The short visit by Mr Kerry was essential for re-evaluating the relationships between the two governments on the one side, and the US administration and the Egyptian people on the other. Under the Mubarak regime, Egypt was a strong ally for the US. This alliance helped create relative stability in the Middle East that served US interests for many years. Definitely, the US is interested in keeping the same relationship with a country of such strategic importance.

However, the US administration is very cautious about repeating its mistake of being biased towards one political faction over others. After the people's revolution in 2011, the US got the message that young people who are yearning for liberal democracy are an important part of the equation for stability.

The missteps of the Muslim Brotherhood-led regime recently have led to the marginalisation of civil society and a state of political polarisation. Therefore, it was a very important gesture that Mr Kerry met first with civil society representatives and opposition leaders who back the youth movements before meeting with the official head of the regime. It was also a good reminder for the regime that Egypt includes other key players who are needed for solving the current political puzzle.

One widely believed argument is that US policy is based on interests, not values, in the new Egypt. In other words, many suspect that the US administration will ignore the anti-democratic practices of Mr Morsi, as long as his Muslim Brotherhood can control or at least rein in Hamas in Gaza.

So it was refreshing that Mr Kerry made clear at the meeting that the "US government and President [Barack] Obama are not choosing to support Morsi", and that the US administration supports human rights and civil freedoms in the post-revolution Egypt. "You [the Egyptian people] elected him," Mr Kerry said. "According to international law and customs, leaders deal with leaders."

As sensible as this statement was, Mr Kerry should remember that Americans must not deal only with Egyptian leaders. Rather, US leaders have to work with their Egyptian counterparts to establishing a liberal democratic state that is based on the pillars of constitutionalism, institutions and a vibrant civil society.

Washington needs to help to end the stumbling process of democratic transformation in Egypt before the emerging terrorist cells in Sinai couple with their colleagues in neighbouring Libya and move towards Cairo. US leaders should help and - if need be - pressure Egyptian leaders to establish a system of clear accountability.

The essence of democracy is for people to take the lead. This was the goal of the Egyptian revolution, and that is what US leaders should advocate, not only as an American value, but as a human one.

On a different but closely related note, Mr Kerry agreed that Egypt is on the brink of an economic disaster, saying the US government would help Egypt by liberalising trade between the two countries and offering limited financial aid.

From my point of view, such aid may become a very important tool to encourage the Egyptian government to adopt political reforms that could help to bridge the current divisions. Aid should be conditional on government accountability, human rights and reform of the security sector. The economic crisis that Egypt is, slowly but surely, sliding into is closely related to the failure of the political leadership to contain anger expressed on the street and involve opposition leaders in the administration of the state.

It is essential for the political leadership to work with Egyptian civil society as an integral part of the new system. The vibrant civil society is one of the last standing pillars that support liberal democracy, a society that spans different sectors bringing people from different social and political backgrounds to work together for the same goal. If it were not for the hard work of civil society organisations over the past 20 years, the people would have never known that they had rights and could fight against the oppressors to win them. If the Morsi regime continues to marginalise civil society, the democratisation process will never succeed.

The stability and mutual benefits of the Egyptian-American relationship have always been very important in the balance between East and West. It is important for this relationship to continue without sacrificing values for short-term interests. Encouraging a stable, liberal democracy in Egypt should be one of the top priorities on the agenda of the new US secretary of state as he deals with Egypt's political leaders. That would be for the good of all parties involved.

 

Dalia Ziada is a human-rights activist and the executive director of Ibn Khaldun Center for Democratic Studies in Cairo

On Twitter: @daliaziada

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