Shadow Government

Why Egypt's Elections Are a Chance for the United States to Hit Reset

With Ukraine and Boko Haram are dominating the headlines, and Syria still commanding attention, the Egyptian presidential election, scheduled for May 26 and 27, has been relegated to the inside pages of the mainstream press. But this election is crucial not only for Egypt, but for the Middle East as a whole. Despite the stagnation of the last years of the Mubarak era, and the turmoil that has wracked the country ever since, Egypt remains the Arab world's center of gravity: It is its cultural center, its most populous state, and the key to any region-wide peace with Israel.

There has been much carping in various American and European circles about the current Egyptian government's crushing of the Islamist opposition. There has been rising criticism, too, of the electoral process that most observers agree will most likely result in the overwhelming victory of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,  previously the chief of staff and defense minister, and a leader in the overthrow of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. That the Islamists proved beyond doubt once in office that their version of democracy was effectively "one man, one vote, one time" has been conveniently forgotten. The focus instead has been on the fact that once again Egypt likely will be led by a general, with images of Gamal Abdel Nasser -- who was actually a Colonel -- and of course onetime Air Chief Marshal Hosni Mubarak constantly brought to the fore.

This hand wringing, however, is the wrong reaction. Washington in particular should view the elections as an opportunity to remedy its missteps over the last few years, when it managed to alienate all sides of the Egyptian political divide. Indeed, it can reinvigorate its relationship with a long-standing and reliable ally whose strategic importance to the United States has remained as critical as ever.

Ever since the Camp David agreements, Egypt has ensured that there would not be region-wide wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It has kept the Suez Canal open both to merchant vessels and warships as large as aircraft carriers. It has consistently granted overflight rights to American military aircraft. It has been a major partner in the battle against terrorism, working with Israel in what otherwise would be a lawless Sinai. With the ascendancy of al-Sisi, Egypt has become a major nemesis of Hamas, sealing off tunnels that it used to smuggle arms into Gaza.

Those who argue that Egypt does not fully adhere to Western democratic standards should recognize that many other American allies in the region have far less open societies. Moreover, given the tumultuous recent past that has disrupted their lives, Egyptians, like most people, yearn for stability. Stability means, first and foremost, security, a roof over people's heads and food in their bellies, an education, and a future for their children. Stability and democracy are not necessarily synonymous; stability, even more than a vibrant civil society, is a precondition for true democracy. While democracy can function in an unstable environment, even where there is a functioning civil society, it will always struggle. Pakistan, for example, has an active civil society. Yet one hardly would call it stable and accordingly, in light of its history of military coups, and the challenge of Islamic extremists, the longer term prospects for its current democratic governance are far from assured.

Egyptian Muslims, though religiously traditional, have nevertheless overwhelmingly rejected the harsh Islamism of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian Copts, increasingly persecuted during the brief Morsi era, see the election as nothing less than a relief. Egyptian business, reeling from the economic mismanagement -- indeed incompetence -- that characterized the Morsi regime, see the upcoming election as an opportunity once again to attract foreign investment. And Egyptian civil society views it as reprieve from a slow road to extinction.

The Obama administration has wisely recognized that it cannot dismiss Egypt's importance. Russia has already made tempting overtures to Cairo. With its influence in Syria and ties to Iran, Moscow is clearly bidding to resuscitate its once influential role in the region. Washington's decision to release ten Apache helicopters is a most welcome first step toward reviving its relationship with Cairo. But it is only a first step, and it can and should do more. Specifically, it can release other systems that Egypt has requested. It can authorize targeted economic assistance that Egypt desperately needs, and encourage American companies to invest in Egypt. Finally, it should welcome the winner of the upcoming elections and invite him to Washington, as it has invited Egyptian leaders for the past four decades, cementing an alliance that has been crucial to America's long standing central role in the Middle East.

MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The Modi Wave: India's Election and American Interests

India's election has produced a decisive majority for the political alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi. Turnout was higher, as a percentage of eligible voters, than in any election since 1984, and exit polling showed an overwhelming demand for change from the 551 million Indians who went to the polls. The sweep of the BJP's victory was striking: The party won 283 seats in parliament, clearing a simple majority of 272, and with its coalition partners it now controls 336 out of 543 seats. The ruling Congress party won only 44 seats (it previously held 209). Polls show Modi enjoyed majority support from upper- and lower-caste Indians, rural and urban voters, and Indians in the populous north and wealthier south. Failures of governance and hopes for change have united the world's most diverse nation across its otherwise yawning socioeconomic chasms.

Incoming Prime Minister Modi promises to reinvigorate an economy whose annual growth rates have halved from near double-digit rates in recent years. He has pledged to tackle endemic corruption and create a slimmed-down, more effective state through what he calls "maximum governance, minimal government." Modi cites his own record as chief minister of Gujarat, which has grown faster than China for two decades, as an example of the pro-growth, no-nonsense management experience he will bring to New Delhi as prime minister. He also promises to more forcefully pursue India's interests abroad, including by responding firmly to Chinese designs on India's northeastern territories. America has high stakes in an Indian resurgence that could help drive global growth and tilt Asia's power balance in a democratic direction.

Restoring economic vigor through good governance and decisive reform is the clear mandate of India's new government. Growth has plummeted to less than 5 percent; annual inflation is almost twice the rate of GDP expansion, hitting average Indians right in their pocketbooks. As many as 800 million Indian citizens live on less than $2 per day, in a land that was once the world's largest economy, comprising some 25 percent of global GDP. One out of every two children is malnourished. Modi has promised "toilets before temples" in a bow to his country's essential development requirements over the religious agenda associated with elements of his party.

In the heady days of go-go growth in the 2000s, many millions of Indians internalized the notion that their country was destined for economic and geopolitical greatness. They feel like the Congress party lost the plot and let them down. It is appropriate that they have voted in a prime minister who has managed the economy of India's most industrialized and globalized state. Narendra Modi is the first prime minister to be born after Indian independence. His election is a metaphor for Indian voters' declaration of independence from the Congress party, which has ruled India for most of its modern history and has suffered its worst electoral defeat ever. As veteran party leader Jairam Ramesh put it, "Our performance is worse than the worst-case scenario."

This election may prove a turning point in India's political history. Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta describes the journey of the Indian voter since 1947 in three stages -- from gratitude to the Congress party to delivering India's independence, to grievance as a result of underdevelopment and stifled opportunity, to aspiration for a better future under conditions of dynamic economic growth. Modi's ascension represents the victory of the aspirational group, now comprising hundreds of millions of Indians and growing every day. They have extraordinarily high expectations for his government.

So does the United States. The greatest momentum in U.S.-Indian relations came during the 2000s, when India was growing at rates approaching 10 percent. The growth Modi promises should restore energy to the bilateral relationship. A flourishing India undergoing vigorous reform will be a better business partner for American firms than one limping along under state socialism. A dynamic India is more likely to have the confidence to engage the United States as a diplomatic partner, rather than retreating into the old shibboleths of non-alignment and third-worldism. A surging India is also more likely to pursue the kind of activist foreign policy that makes it a shaper, rather than a victim, of world events.

This matters in light of India's symmetry of interests with the United States. A revitalized India will be the southern anchor of an Asian balance of power that does not tilt too heavily towards China. It would be an example to the emerging world of economic transformation under democratic institutions. A thriving India could uplift its region, including troubled Pakistan. In short, the United States has a considerable stake in India's success. If Modi can go even partway towards meeting his people's aspirations, American interests will benefit too.

Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images