Obama and the State Department’s Challenge in Egypt

Michael Posner is the president’s point man on democracy: no wonder he looks exhausted.

Hasan Jamali

Michael Posner looks perpetually unshaven, and his leather shoes were worn and scuffed as he sat in his seventh-floor office at the State Department one afternoon earlier this year. The room is tidy, with the slogan “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” hanging on the wall.

Besides an interest in revolution, he has good instincts. Shortly after starting his job as an assistant secretary in 2009, Posner began talking with his boss, Hillary Clinton, about focusing on China and Egypt.

“I get China,” she said, as he recalls. “But why Egypt?”

Today, he says, “Egypt is in a different place, to say the least.” Meanwhile, his own job, promoting democracy for an administration that has been ambivalent about the undertaking, continues to pose a challenge.

Egyptians voted in their first free presidential election since the fall of Hosni Mubarak this week. The results have not yet been decided; the two leading candidates—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and former prime minister Ahmed Shafik—will face each other in a runoff next month. Regardless of who wins, it is not clear whether the military council that is now running the country will agree to relinquish power.

If the military rulers refuse to step aside, the election, and the revolution itself, could be a failure, and that is one of the great perils faced by democracy activists. The conflict between the military leaders and civilians goes back decades, a brutal struggle that has left hundreds dead during clashes over the past 16 months alone. The threat from the military is harrowing for activists in Egypt; it also exposes weaknesses in U.S. policy, particularly America’s ongoing struggle with democracy promotion.

To understand why things are so precarious for democracy advocates in Egypt, it helps to examine the history of the relationship between the activists and the military. It also helps to examine how President Obama sees the situation in Egypt, before and after the Arab Spring, and why he has at times wavered in his support for the efforts of democracy activists—and made their work even harder.

For many Americans, the image of democracy promotion was marred by the zeal of George W. Bush. Obama, for instance, tried “to put that term behind him,” a former Defense Department speechwriter says, and did not mention the word “democracy” in his inaugural address, the first time in decades that a president left it out. Rather than criticizing Mubarak, Obama developed a working relationship with him and put up with restrictions he placed on U.S.-supported democracy groups. Federal funding for democracy programs in Egypt was cut in half.

The problem, according to Atlantic Council’s Michele Dunne, who worked for the National Security Council during the Bush administration, was that Obama and his deputies “suffered from a low level of confidence.”

As a result, she says, “They went very far in the other direction and were low key” about democracy promotion.

Obama lacked “moral clarity,” says Elliott Abrams, a State Department official during the Reagan administration, which some recall as the golden age of democracy promotion. Obama decided to engage with autocrats such as Mubarak, says Abrams, and botched American efforts to promote democracy: “I think it was a kind of abandonment of people in those countries.”

Then came the Arab Spring. “Activists in Tahrir were accusing the Obama administration of being too soft on democracy promotion,” recalls activist Tarek Radwan, formerly of Human Rights Watch. “The Americans were willing to maintain their comfort with Mubarak till it became clear that the country would collapse into outright riots.”

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In contrast to his lukewarm approach before the Arab Spring, Obama became a strong supporter of democracy advocates and began to talk about ramping up aid.

The shift in policy has made things harder for Posner, who acknowledges that White House officials have traveled a bumpy road. “Any administration needs to have a period where it develops its internal thinking,” he says, explaining that the approach to democracy promotion has undergone “a natural evolution.”

His colleagues try to help. Michael McFaul, the ambassador to Russia and author of Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can, tells me that the administration’s efforts at democracy promotion have “gotten stronger.”

Throughout the process, Posner, the former head of Human Rights First, says he sees the world as he always did, explaining that there are “no secret handshakes” when you go to work for the State Department, and that he has not backed down from his views. “I don’t feel constrained in articulating things,” he adds. “Nobody has suggested to me that I ought to temper my ideals or my core beliefs.”

“To the credit of our administration, they’ve brought in people like us from the outside,” he says. “We don’t always prevail. But we have the clear space to present our views.”

Posner’s defense of policy, as well as his support for democracy activists, seem to be heartfelt, making him, as Carnegie Endowment’s Thomas Carothers says, “a very articulate spokesman.” Yet, says Carothers, “his view was not driving U.S. policy towards Egypt.”

“The bulk of U.S. policy was about support for Mubarak and support for an orderly transition that Mubarak’s circle would oversee,” says Carothers, author of Aiding Democracy Abroad. (“That’s so dark,” I tell him on the phone. “That’s called reality,” he replies.)

And despite Posner’s efforts to present things in a positive light, the relationship between Egypt and the United States became poisoned, with Cairo officials attacking U.S. attempts to promote democracy. Several months ago, authorities cracked down on American nongovernmental organizations that supported democracy activists and election observers, and as a result this week’s election took place with fewer people to monitor the process.

“There are some observers, though not everywhere,” Posner said at a State Department briefing on Thursday, adding that the electoral process seemed “open.”

Top-ranking U.S. officials, the ones who are driving policy, seem divided in their views about Egypt. Some want the military to retain power because it makes things easier, especially for intelligence-gathering and counterterrorism. Others side with the freedom fighters.

One former official who has been through the fire and worked with autocrats, now has regrets. David Kramer, who served as an assistant secretary during the Bush years, in the job that Posner currently holds, says he and his colleagues spent years cultivating their relationship with Mubarak. “I’m not defending it,” says Kramer.

“If we learn nothing else from the Arab movement, we should learn not to focus solely on placating these kinds of leaders,” he explains. “We have to look out for human rights and democracy.”

At this point, nobody in the administration, whether realist or idealist, seems to have the upper hand. “I actually think there is no real consensus on this within the U.S. government,” says the Atlantic Council’s Dunne, who has met with American officials and just returned from Cairo. That would explain the conflicting signals, and confusing policies, from the White House.

At the briefing, Posner seemed more rested than he did earlier this year, but still stressed. He straightened his back and swallowed hard, then walked to the podium.

“Progress towards human rights is neither linear nor guaranteed,” he says. Afterward, he answered a reporter’s question about Egypt.

“We’re in a journey,” he said. “But we stand with the Egyptian government and people as they move forward in that journey.”

With administration policy muddled and the outcome in Cairo uncertain, one thing is clear: Posner has one of the hardest jobs in Washington.