CAIRO: After Washington called for foreign monitors in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, analysts say this new tone partly reflects US uncertainty about Egypt’s future.
The country will vote for a president next year, and it is still unknown whether 82-year-old incumbent Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981, will seek another term.
His successor will probably come from the ruling party or the military, and other contenders are not expected to have a serious chance.
"Like many people in Egypt, the Americans are concerned about where this country is heading," said Issandr ElAmrani, a Cairo-based analyst.
Michele Dunne, who attended a meeting in Washington between US Obama’s national security advisers and a group of US foreign policy analysts who were pushing for reforms in Egypt, said the administration was still trying to form a coherent policy on democracy and human rights after initially distancing itself from Bush’s agenda.
"In its first year the Obama administration said almost nothing about these rights. Human rights groups were upset about that, and not primarily about Egypt," said Dunne, a former State Department Middle East specialist and analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Egypt’s case is before them right now because of the elections and probably an impending leadership succession," she said.
"There is a growing concern that we have this ally and we want them to be our ally, but think that the way to promote greater stability is not to prevent all change," she said.
Earlier this week, the State Department called on Egypt to hold a free election and allow international monitors to observe the November 28 parliamentary poll.
Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki warned that "if [the US] intends more of this, Egypt, which takes strong stances, will have a clear position," alluding to the strategic relationship between Egypt and the US in a television interview.
He was responding to a question on whether the government would take further steps after releasing the statement accusing the United States of meddling in its affairs.
"Neither party has an interest in escalation because the US-Egyptian relationship remains important for regional stability," Zaki said.
The Egyptian foreign ministry had released a statement quoting an unnamed official as saying, “It is as if the US has turned into a caretaker of how Egyptian society should conduct its own politics," adding that "Whoever thinks that this is possible is deluded."
In response to the Egyptian criticism, US Ambassador Margaret Scobey said the US welcomed Egypt’s stated commitment to open and free elections "including facilitating domestic monitoring by civil society groups."
"In addition, an open electoral process would include a credible and impartial mechanism for reviewing election-related complaints, a domestic election observation effort according to international standards, and the presence of international observers,’" she said in a statement.
In Washington, US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that the election would be watched very closely to ensure it meets Egypt’s requirements and international standards.
"We have encouraged Egypt to make sure that there are adequate domestic observers and international observers for this upcoming election," he said.
While never under serious threat, ties underwent a chill in the past decade after then president George W. Bush pressed Egypt to hold free elections and release dissidents.
Current President Barack Obama restored warmth to the relationship and was seen to have shied away from Bush’s robust democracy advocacy.
Egypt, one of two Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel, receives billions of dollars in US foreign aid.
It has played an important role in mediating between Israelis and Palestinians, a priority of Obama’s administration.