The latest news from Egypt is literally beyond satire: Bassem Youssef, often described as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart,” is being prosecuted on charges of insulting President Mohamed Morsi and Islam in general.
As Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, one of the smartest Egypt analysts around, notes, this is of a piece with Morsi’s general crackdown on opposition and attempts to give the Muslim Brotherhood control of all aspects of Egyptian society: “According to the Egypt-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, four times as many lawsuits for ‘insulting the president’ were filed during Morsi’s first 100 days in office than during Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year reign.”
The question is what the U.S. should do about this worrisome power grab. Exhorting Morsi to respect freedom of speech is a no-brainer—but what should we do if, like Mubarak before him, he ignores our exhortations? The U.S. has considerable leverage because of all the aid we provide to Egypt and because Egypt needs our support for a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF that it needs to keep its economy functioning. It is easy enough to threaten Morsi with an aid cutoff but harder to follow through because of the disastrous consequences that are likely for Egyptian society.
As the New York Times notes, Egypt is already facing a foreign-reserve crisis. As its hard currency holdings diminish (falling over the past two years from $36 billion to $13 billion) and as its own currency loses value, social instability increases: “A fuel shortage has helped send food prices soaring. Electricity is blacking out even before the summer. And gas-line gunfights have killed at least five people and wounded dozens over the past two weeks.” Do we dare risk exacerbating this crisis by punishing Morsi for his transgressions against liberal principles?
That is not an easy question to answer because it is hard to predict the consequences of an economic collapse in Egypt—it could discredit Morsi and lead to the rise of a more moderate government or, more likely, it could provide an opening for Salafists even more radical than Morsi to come to the fore. Even if we cut only military, not economic, assistance, the results could backfire by weakening the military, which remains the only institution powerful enough to resist a complete Muslim Brotherhood takeover.
None of this is to argue that we shouldn’t use our financial leverage—only to wonder what would happen if Morsi calls our bluff.
At the very least we should be working behind the scenes on other policies designed to provide support to more liberal and secular groups that want to resist a Brotherhood crackdown but lack the resources to do so.
What we cannot afford is to remain aloof—as President Obama by temperament and policy prefers to do. The battle going on for the future of the most populous Arab state will have long-term ramifications for the entire region—and for vital American interests. Given the stakes involved we don’t have the option of voting “present” as Obama had a penchant for doing while an Illinois state senator, but figuring out the right policy mix remains devilishly difficult.