US shifts towards caution on reform

CAIRO — The US approach to political change in Egypt has shifted in favour of those who advocate caution to keep Islamists out of power until they clarify or modify their policies, diplomats and analysts say.
Another school of thought, pressing for rapid change regardless of consequences, appeared to be in the ascendant earlier this year but has since lost ground, they add.

In their public statements, US officials have advised the Egyptian government to take specific steps such as ensuring free presidential elections in September, allowing international monitors, giving the opposition access to the state media and preventing violence against peaceful street protests. But the officials have thrown little light in public on how fast they think change should happen and whether they are really willing to see the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, who has worked closely with US presidents for a quarter of a century. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in March rejected the argument that political change could lead to instability, saying the region was not stable anyway.

Washington would speak out for “freedom” without offering a model or knowing what the outcome would be, she added.

She had been asked whether the United States was worried that democratisation could lead to electoral victories by Muslim “fundamentalists.”

Analyst Mohammad Al Sayed Said said the Bush administration quickly started to reconsider this policy of what he called “constructive instability” on the advice of people in the Middle East, including the Israelis and their supporters in Washington.

“Instead of asking for substantial change, they were convinced to be content with limited reform,” said Said, deputy director of Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“It’s clear that pro-Israeli groups are advising caution on Egypt. The idea of calming down the fears in the region came from people close to the region,” he added.

Tarek Heggy, a liberal businessman and writer who has close informal contacts with the Bush administration, said US policy makers were still split between the impatient and the cautious.

He linked the first group with prominent sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim, a dual-national Egyptian-American who has argued recently that the Muslim Brotherhood should play a part in the Egyptian political system. Heggy disagrees.

The Brotherhood is the largest opposition group in the country but the government denies it any formal political role on the ground that it is based on religion.

“They [the Americans] are very much undecided. There are people who say `Open up immediately even if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power’. Others say the opposite. Many in sensitive positions know nothing about the Muslim Brotherhood,” Heggy told Reuters in an interview.

But he added: “As someone in the [White House] National Security Council told me yesterday, `We were all fans of Saadeddin six months ago. Now we believe in your approach’.” Diplomatic sources in Cairo said the Bush administration expects Mubarak to win a fifth six-year term in elections in September and is now thinking about how to open up the political system in time for the next elections in 2011.

One diplomatic source said the United States was concentrating on what he called “managing the change” and thought it unrealistic to expect dramatic reforms within months. Judging by the few official comments on the subject, the United States has not yet formulated a policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, which is hostile towards US policy in the Middle East and towards US ally Israel, the source added.

But the United States believes the Muslim Brotherhood needs to make the transition from a religion-based movement to a political group with practical policy proposals, he said.

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