The Cable

How the Senate resolution on Egyptian democracy died

Last fall, a bipartisan group of senators led a months-long drive to pass a resolution calling for greater freedom and democracy in Egypt. The resolution died last December due to a fatal mix of divided loyalties, lobbying influence, and secret Senate holds.

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) led the effort to press Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to move toward more free and fair elections via a Senate resolution (PDF) which called for "supporting democracy, human rights, and civil liberties in Egypt." First introduced last July, the resolution quickly gained the support of a range of senators, including Al Franken (D-MN), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and Sam Brownback (R-KS).

The resolution's supporters tried several times to bring it up for a Senate vote, once before the August congressional recess, again before the Egyptian parliamentary elections in November, and then again during the post-election lame-duck session. But due to the objections of two key senators and secret holds by two other senators, the resolution never saw the light of day on the Senate floor.

"It's too bad; it was blocked by members on both sides of the aisle and the administration opposed it too. It was not helpful; it sent all the wrong signals to Egypt," McCain told The Cable on Tuesday in an interview. "We called for observers to monitor the elections, and we got no support from the administration on that either."

In addition to calling for election monitors, the resolution urged Mubarak to fulfill his promise to lift the emergency law in Egypt, release political prisoners, and respect human rights. It also would have called on the Obama administration to emphasize political reform and human rights in its dealings with the Mubarak regime.

According to three senior Senate aides who worked on the issue, the two senators who were most active behind the scenes to prevent the resolution from moving forward were Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Roger Wicker (R-MS). Feinstein, as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had concerns about the resolution's effect on the U.S. relationship with the Mubarak regime and worried that it would jeopardize U.S.-Egyptian cooperation on a range of sensitive national security issues.

Wicker, these three Senate aides said, worked against the resolution's passage in part due to his long-standing relationship with a top Washington lobbyist, Wicker's former House colleague Bob Livingston, whose firm was being paid by the government of Egypt under a years-long lobbying contract.

Livingston's firm makes up one-third of the entity known as the PLM Group, a lobbying entity created to advocate on behalf of the Mubarak regime. The firm also includes Tony Podesta and former Democratic Congressman Toby Moffett. According to the Washington Post and disclosure filings, Mubarak has paid PLM over $4 million since 2007.

While PLM was lobbying against the resolution, Livingston personally called Wicker to ask him to do what he could to stall the measure. When asked by The Cable on Tuesday about his opposition to the resolution, Wicker said, "I would have to refresh my recollection."

An aide to Wicker confirmed to The Cable that Wicker did in fact talk with Livingston about the resolution, but the aide said that Wicker was simply doing his due diligence to make sure the resolution was not pushed through hastily.

"Senator Wicker's main goal was to make sure the resolution was worded in a way to make sure the resolution was productive and to make sure that Egypt was recognized as an ally and a partner," the aide said.

Phil LaVelle, a spokesman for Feinstein, would not discuss the senator's effort to alter the resolution to make it more acceptable to the Egyptians, but he did acknowledge that her office stood in the way of the resolution for a time.

"Senator Feinstein had initial concerns; we worked with the co-sponsors to get those concerns resolved, and at the end of the day she did not object to its passage," LaVelle told The Cable.

It's true that during the lame-duck session, when a pared-down version of the resolution was being circulated for the third and final time, neither Wicker nor Feinstein formally objected to it. But they didn't have to. In November, two unnamed Democratic senators placed secret holds on the resolution, preventing it from being brought up by unanimous consent and effectively killing its chances of moving forward.

None of the Senate aides who spoke with The Cable know which two Democratic senators secretly held up the resolution in the end. But for the resolution's supporters, the episode is a stark illustration of how Washington policy over Egypt was caught in a tangled mess of competing interests and how broad bipartisan efforts can be torpedoed by a small number of lawmakers.

For McCain, the resolution was a missed opportunity for the U.S. government to put pressure on Mubarak so that the revolt might not have happened and to show the world that America stands behind the principles of democracy and human rights.

"We want to make sure we're ahead of events and not behind," he said. "And we've got to make sure we're on the right side of history."

The Cable

Time for another Obama 'envoy' to Egypt?

Following Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's announcement he will not run for president again and the Egyptian protesters' apparent rejection of that concession, it's clear is that even if "envoy" Frank Wisner's mission to Cairo was a success, the Obama administration isn't out of the woods yet on this crisis.

Obama sent Wisner to deliver the message to Mubarak that he should announce he will not run for reelection in September and provide for the orderly transition to a more democratic government. Mubarak's concessions apparently didn't go quite as far as the administration wanted in detailing the terms of such a transition. But administration officials are saying Tuesday night they now realize that even if Mubarak had done everything they asked, that was not going to be enough to satisfy the protesters.

On Tuesday night, following Mubarak's remarks, Obama addressed the rapidly changing situation in Egypt. "We've borne witness to the beginning of a new chapter in the history of a great country, and a long-time partner of the United States," he said, adding that the transition "must begin now."

Nevertheless, the progress made so far has not been enough to end the standoff or repair the protesters' view of the United States, and the Obama administration now must figure out its role in what could become protracted negotiations between Mubarak and the opposition.

"Now there's a strategic game going on between the Obama administration and Mubarak," said the Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook, who was in Cairo when the protests broke out. The White House should have known anything short of Mubarak stepping down immediately would not end the crisis, he said.

"Either the administration has some other strategy or they didn't realize that there's the potential for Mubarak to take the opportunity of the next few months to manipulate the political process to favor whomever he wants to follow him," Cook said. "I can't believe they thought this would satisfy the crowds."

Of course, now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can point to Mubarak's Tuesday night speech in order to hold him to account if the president doesn't actually move to hold free and fair elections. But the Egyptian people, who were already angry about U.S. support for Mubarak, aren't likely to see that as a helpful stance by the Obama team.

"Everybody in Egypt knows we have enabled this regime. At this point we need to get out of the way," said Cook.

Perhaps the administration doesn't want to completely burn its relationship with Mubarak, just in case he actually prevails, but that ship might have already sailed. "The relationship is never going to be the same again, there's going to be hostility anyway, so they might as well double down [on the side of the protesters]," Cook said. "The jig is up."

According to a readout of today's national security meeting at the White House, the Obama administration is still calling for an "orderly transition" to greater democracy in Egypt - a position first outlined by Clinton on Jan. 30.

"With regard to Egypt, Secretary Clinton discussed our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association, and speech; and supporting an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people," the White House stated.

Behind the scenes, there are increasing signs the administration is reaching out to opposition leaders. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted Tuesday that U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey spoke with Mohamed ElBaradei; a senior State Department official also said that she will be speaking with other opposition leaders.

But while Wisner, who is known for being close to Mubarak and his people, might be a perfect "envoy" to send to deal with Mubarak, he's not likely to be the American in the best position to reach out to the opposition groups. That would require a diplomat with close and personal relationships with various non-governmental entities in Egypt.

To be sure, administration officials both in Washington and Cairo have extensive ties with various opposition elements in Egypt and are in contact with them on a regular basis. But if the Obama administration wanted to quickly ramp up its engagement with the opposition, a new envoy could do the trick.

We're told that the administration is now considering a new, different envoy to send to Cairo to fulfill that very mission and the administration is focusing on another former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. The most likely candidates who fit that description are Daniel Kurtzer, an ambassador in Cairo under President Clinton with strong ties to the Obama team, Ned Walker, another Clinton-era ambassador and a former president of the Middle East Institute, and Frank Ricciardone, the ambassador before Scobey and current ambassador to Turkey.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, suggested that it might be better to keep the administration's preparations for what promises to be a radical shift in Egypt's political terrain on a lower level than another unofficial envoy, instead depending on the people who have been working with Egyptian civil society groups on the ground.

"Sending a new ‘envoy' to reach out to opposition groups would send a strong signal, but you need someone who really understands and has relationships with a wide range of figures there," he said.

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