From the Eastern bloc to East Asia and beyond, the United States has an admirable and long legacy of supporting societies making democratic transitions. Now that it's the Mideast undergoing rapid transformation, our foreign-policy should be equally vigorous.
The Obama administration can provide a major boost to the democratic process in the region by relieving Egypt of $1 billion of its debt, backing a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan and taking other measures to help stabilize the country's struggling economy. U.S. and Egyptian diplomats are negotiating terms of the loan-forgiveness package.
There are private-sector efforts underway as well. Egypt's economic potential has lured a high-profile delegation representing nearly 50 U.S. businesses. That group will leave for Cairo on Saturday.
The administration risked being on the wrong side of history during the heady days of Tahrir Square protests. But it soon smartly signaled that it was time to end Hosni Mubarak's military dictatorship.
Now it's time to strengthen the commitment to Egypt's democratic transition -- even if the legitimately elected new president is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an entity that Mubarak banned and U.S. diplomats shunned.
It was not the ideal group to emerge in Egypt, but since gaining control the Muslim Brotherhood has shown signs that its history of fiery rhetoric is giving way to the cold, hard realities of governing. There have been significant setbacks to press freedom, and other politically heavy-handed measures are sources of significant concern. But to date, it has acted in a relatively responsible manner.
New President Mohammed Morsi and his legislative supporters realize that unless they begin to revive Egypt's sclerotic economy, protesters may take to the streets once again to demand more change. Next time, those who gain power may not be the relatively rational actors that the Muslim Brotherhood appears to be.
Stabilizing the economy, as well as Morsi's government, is in the best interest of Israel as well. Early, legitimate fears that Egypt may abrogate its peace treaty with Israel have subsided, which is most likely one of the reasons why Israel's ambassador to the United States has encouraged the economic assistance.
While Israel is appropriately concerned about lawlessness in Egypt's Sinai region, its immediate crisis is Iran's potential nuclear-weapons program, which Israel rightly considers an existential threat. Morsi's trip to Tehran last week for a summit caused concern, but he eased fears by bucking his hosts with an unequivocal call for Syrian President Bashar Assad, a key Iranian ally, to cede power. Morsi labeled Assad's government "an oppressive regime that has lost is legitimacy," which could have been words spoken by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or any other of the many world leaders rebuking Assad's murderous reign.
Economically aiding Egypt can pay diplomatic dividends in dealing with Syria and Iran, according to Eric Schwartz, a former diplomat and now the dean of the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota.
"This demonstration of support for the democratic processes in the Middle East enhances our capacity to pursue other measures in the region in ways that regional actors deem as credible and not reflective of general hostility on the part of the United States in the region," Schwartz said. "Our ability to make these sorts of distinction of support that are consistent with our interest enhance our credibility and our capacity when we have to take tougher measures elsewhere."
Tough times plague the Mideast and North Africa, both in countries with repressive regimes and in those that recently shed them. It is in America's best interest to support democracy in the region -- and moving forward with aid for Egypt's government and citizens is a key next step.
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