The Obama administration has been forced to navigate a difficult path in the past week. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has forced it to balance its rhetorical support of democracy with the necessity to acknowledge that the military coup that forced Mohamed Morsi from office was a product of a popular backlash against the Brotherhood’s excesses and drive for total power. But as much as Washington has slowly begun distancing itself from the strategy of embracing the Brotherhood that characterized U.S. policy for the past year, the president still can’t quite grasp the realities of the conflict in Cairo. The U.S. decision to pressure the military to release Islamists they have arrested, or to include them in a new government, is exactly the sort of tone deaf advice that has cratered America’s reputation in Egypt.
But the fact that the military is rejecting Obama’s advice and thereby endangering the more than $2 billion a year they get in U.S. aid shows just how out of touch the administration is with the reality on the ground. The administration is treading a bit more carefully on Egypt than it was a year ago, when they were strong-arming the army into letting the Brotherhood take over. But Obama and his foreign policy team need to wrap their brains around a basic truth that the Egyptian generals are forced to deal with: the conflict with a group like the Brotherhood is a zero-sum game. Allowing the Islamists freedom to organize or letting Morsi re-enter the government would merely give the Brotherhood a leg up in its effort to seize back the reins of power. And anyone, include the fools in the State Department and the White House, who thinks the Brotherhood will stop at anything once they gain back what they have lost, understands nothing about the movement.
On the surface, the U.S. position on the current impasse in Egypt seems reasonable. The call to de-escalate the conflict and to reconstruct a democratic process is in line with America’s values as well as a belief that civil war is the worst possible outcome for both Egyptians and regional stability.
But the Egyptian generals understand that this was their one chance to stop the Brotherhood from irrevocably changing their country. Prior to the election they won, the Brotherhood worked hard to improve their image and sell the West on the notion that they were merely religious democrats who wouldn’t impose their beliefs on the rest of the country. But once in power, they proved to be not only incompetent at the business of running the country but quickly moved to seize total power in a way that might make it difficult if not impossible to ever depose them via democratic means. The demonstrators that took to the streets in unprecedented numbers earlier this month understood it was a now-or-never moment in which they sought to take back the country before it was too late.
That’s why the urgings of senior U.S. diplomat William Burns to the military to free the Brotherhood detainees or to bring them into a new coalition are being rejected. Once free, the Islamists won’t be long in seeking to use their supporters to topple the new government and impose a new order that will ensure the end of any independent sources of power in Cairo.
It should also be noted that the Islamists were equally unwilling to listen to Burns. They, too, see the power struggle in terms that seem to have eluded the Americans. Seeking to bridge the gap between the Brotherhood and the secular liberals and their military supporters is as much of a fool’s errand as Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest effort to revive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
At this point, there are no good options left for the United States. Neither side in the conflict in Egypt is perfect. But what Obama needs to understand is that though the Morsi/Brotherhood government may have been elected, it was as much a threat to freedom as the military. It’s time for the U.S. to step back and let the new government do what it must to ensure the Islamists won’t launch a civil war. A failure to do so won’t help democracy. Nor will it enhance America’s influence in a country where Obama already has zero credibility.