As regular as the changing of the seasons, Americans are enduring another long U.S. presidential campaign with little enthusiasm. In Egypt Wednesday and today, tens of millions are voting in the country's first free election for president. The outcome will signal the direction of U.S. relations with the Middle East's most populous nation, and the Obama administration's response should be clearer than its halting reaction to the overthrow of longtime ally Hosni Mubarak at the height of last year's Arab spring.
The fireworks and euphoria that marked Mubarak's forced resignation after waves of protests in February 2011 have given way to the even more difficult challenge of establishing a new government. The last 15 months under a transitional military government have been uncertain at best. The Egyptian government has cracked down on nongovernment organizations from the United States and other countries that have been promoting democracy. That led to the Obama administration's suspension of $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, although most of that amount has since been restored. Negotiations on forgiving more than $1 billion in debt to the United States remain on hold until after the election, and the direction of the relationship between the two countries hangs in the balance.
More than a dozen candidates are competing in the election, with less than half that many viable possibilities. No candidate is expected to win more than 50 percent of the vote, and that would trigger a runoff next month between the top two finishers. While the opinion polls are unreliable, the essential question is clear: Will Egypt continue to be led by a secular administration friendly to the United States, or will Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood take over who are anti-Israel and no fans of U.S. foreign policy? Regardless of the outcome of this week's election, the Obama administration cannot be perceived as only supporting democracy in other countries if it likes the decision voters make.
For Egyptians, the months since Mubarak was toppled after three decades as the nation's ruler have been difficult. The protests have not always been peaceful, the economy has been down and crime has gone up. A new constitution has yet to be written, and government reform remains elusive. Yet Egyptians are embracing democracy and recently watched the nation's first presidential debate, which lasted more than four hours and followed a tutorial on American presidential debates.
While Americans are focused on Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, the outcome of Egypt's elections also will have a significant impact on U.S. foreign policy, economic trade and stability in the Middle East. The Obama administration should continue to promote democracy. It should encourage the Egyptian military to follow through on ceding power to the newly elected president. And it should be prepared to respond smartly to events and an election outcome it can't predict and certainly cannot control.