The Obama administration took a great deal of justified criticism about its indecisive and at times contradictory policies toward the events of the Arab Spring. But as events in Egypt are illustrating, there really are no good choices left there for the United States. The massive protests in Cairo that seek to force the military to renounce power are, at least on the surface, a reprise of the pro-democracy demonstrations that ousted Hosni Mubarak. But even as the United States signals it does not favor a situation where control of the country remains in the hands of a few unelected officials, it’s fair to ask whether the military is the only force that can stop the Muslim Brotherhood and act as a guarantor that the revolution will not result in a wholesale destruction of individual rights rather than empowering democrats.
Though the United States has not done all that it could to promote democracy in the Arab world, it may be a mistake to interpret the demand for the military to step aside now as one that will actually lead to freedom. If, as the Brotherhood as well as Egyptian liberals demand, the military loses its power to act as a check on an elected government, that may be the tipping point for a descent into something far worse than a reprise of Mubarak: an Islamist government.
Egyptians are understandably tired of military rule and distrustful of what they believe are merely the corrupt successors of Mubarak who plan to rule no matter what happens in the upcoming election. But the conundrum for Egyptian liberals is if the Islamists win at the ballot box, it may lead to yet another case of “one man, one vote, one time” seen many times before in the Third World. Unless there are constitutional checks on the power of an Islamist government that are backed by the threat of force, individual rights, democracy, as well as the rights of the Christian minority in Egypt, may be finished.
The problem is that in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, the military sought to do a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood that was rightly seen as the most influential political party in the nation. But the generals have now learned the Islamists won’t settle for an arrangement where they get a share of power but not the ability to transform the country into an Islamist state. But having spent the last several months seeking to repress the liberals, they are now in no position to seek their support in a power struggle with the Brotherhood. Instead, it is the liberals who are out on the streets making common cause with the Islamists who, if given the chance, will use any power they gain to ensure democracy and individual rights are doomed.
This is a confusing situation and a reminder that even a skillful U.S. government can’t always impose its will or beliefs on other countries. The Obama administration has been anything but skillful in handling this situation, but at this point, Washington doesn’t have any good choices. Yet the United States still has considerable leverage in the form of the $2 billion in aid that goes to Egypt on an annual basis. Despite our revulsion at what is going on in Cairo, this is not the moment to be revoking that aid. Instead, we should be signaling the military that we might support their position if they commit to acting as a check on the Islamists and the guarantor of genuine democracy. Obama must understand the worst-case outcome is a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood. It is that all-too viable scenario the West must seek to avoid.