WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration offered tempered praise this week as millions of Egyptians cast ballots in an election likely to be the country's freest and fairest ever — a vote the U.S. insisted go forward despite objections by pro-democracy street protesters.
The administration wanted timely elections even though they risked leaving the U.S. with less influence and fewer friends in the Middle East.
After two days of largely peaceful voting marked by high turnouts, U.S. spokesmen termed Egypt's first vote since Hosni Mubarak's ouster a success. They focused on the openness of the parliamentary election and not on the Islamic hardliners who may end up the big winners — or what that might mean for U.S. policy or U.S. ally Israel.
"As much as it's important to protest in Tahrir Square, the real future — the democratic future — of Egypt will be decided in the ballot box," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "The Egyptian people are now exercising their democratic right in a peaceful fashion that will lead to real democratic change in the long term for Egypt. That's a very good thing."
After a week when U.S. officials watched warily as Egypt suffered a new wave of unrest and violence, Monday and Tuesday's balloting provided the administration with renewed confidence that the country is on a path that, however treacherous, should lead to a more democratic future. Fears that protests and harsh police action would spill over into the election, or that Egypt's military rulers would interfere with voters, proved unfounded.
The result seemed to validate weeks of active diplomacy by the Obama administration to press Egypt's interim military leadership to stick to its proposed timeline for parliamentary and presidential elections. The U.S. hasn't gotten all it wanted, including a key demand of the demonstrators that Egypt's Mubarak-era emergency restrictions on civil liberties be lifted. Washington nonetheless stuck to a strategy of backing the Egyptian generals' stewardship over the transition — despite misgivings over rough treatment of protesters — and the smooth voting suggests the strategy paid off.
"Those two characterizations — high turnout and no violence — I think speak to the success" of the vote, Toner said. He complimented the military council on naming a new prime minister and accelerating to no later than June 30 its handover of power to an elected president and civilian government. "All these are the elements of a democratic transition that we think is positive."
Getting there has been difficult, and the U.S. has resorted to adding what weight it carries with the generals to the clamor of the demonstrators: It sharply stepped up its criticism of the council last week amid a crackdown by security forces that killed more than 40 people over nine days. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared this month that "if, over time, the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest."
While many Egyptians fear the generals will continue to dominate the government even after the handover, U.S. concern also centers on whether one of its most important Middle East allies will turn down a more Islamic path. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are expected to be the biggest winners, seizing a plurality and possibly a majority of parliament when all the voting is finished next year.
President Barack Obama's top officials have made it clear that the U.S. is ready to work with whichever parties emerge victorious. But they also acknowledge that Egypt's immediate support for such American-led efforts as isolating Iran and promoting Arab-Israeli peace may not be a given.
U.S. credibility is low among some of the Islamic parties because of America's record of three decades of support for former dictator Hosni Mubarak, who erected a hated police state while collecting billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
"The democratic process is what's important. Principles matter to this president, not parties," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. "Our standards have to do with respect for human rights, respect for the democratic process, denunciation of violence, and inclusion of and respect for minorities in the process."
Carney also said it was unfair to assume that religious-affiliated parties cannot function democratically.
"Before we judge the disposition of a government, or a parliament that's just beginning to take shape through elections that have started today," Carney said, "I think we need to let the process run its course, continue to espouse our firm support for democratic principles and for civilian control of the government, and then judge the outcome by the actions of those who prevail."
Toner said if the Muslim Brotherhood commits to the democratic process, "we'll welcome them as a part of the political process."
Analysts warned that it was still too early to judge Egypt's electoral process a success-in-waiting. Second-round parliamentary voting awaits, a new constitution must be drafted, and then a presidential election will be held.
"This is the electoral equivalent of pulling an all-nighter," said Jon Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But he described it as the best possible process for the United States, which lacks good options.
"The most important thing," Alterman said, "is there is a genuine process that we can influence in the longer term."