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Balancing U.S. Policy on an Ally in Transition

Written on November 22, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Americas, Democracy & Human Rights, Foreign Policy, Middle East

By Scott Shane

A wounded man was carried away from clashes in Cairo on Tuesday

For the United States, the weekend clashes in Cairo crystallized the defining policy quandary of the Arab Spring: how to square contradictory American impulses that include support for democratic change, a desire for stability and wariness of Islamists who have become a potent political force.

he violent confrontations of security forces with thousands of people in Tahrir Square to protest military rule bear a resemblance to the heady days of February when Hosni Mubarak was ousted. But they were perhaps more accurately seen as early skirmishes in what is likely to be a long and chaotic struggle for power, with an uncertain outcome and huge challenges for American policy makers. The immediate worry is that protests could spiral out of control and meet with a military crackdown that might endanger the first parliamentary elections to follow Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, with some voting set to begin Nov. 28.

“This weekend of violence should be a matter of very great concern in Washington,” Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, said in an interview from Cairo.

“People on Tahrir Square see the administration as backing the SCAF,” Mr. McInerney said, using the acronym for the military ruling body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. “I don’t think that’s entirely fair, but that’s the perception.”

The outcome of the political turmoil in Egypt, by far the most populous country in the Arab world, is of enormous consequence to the United States. It will set an influential precedent for smaller countries in the region, determine whether the Muslim Brotherhood’s brand of Islam is compatible with democracy and decide the future of relations with Israel.

In the longer run, there is concern that the Brotherhood, which showed its clout by turning out tens of thousands of demonstrators on Friday, could eventually pose its own threat to democratic values and minority rights by imposing conservative religious rule. Brian Katulis, of the Center for American Progress, said the administration had been actively reaching out to the Brotherhood to keep communications open and encourage its leaders to send a message of respect for basic human rights.

Both Mr. McInerney and Mr. Katulis are members of the Working Group on Egypt, American experts who have met since well before the Arab Spring to discuss developments in that country and have been consulted by the White House. Read more…

As published in www.nytimes.com on November 20, 2011 (a version of this news analysis appeared in print on November 21, 2011, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Balancing U.S. Policy on an Ally in Transition).

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