While Secretary of State John Kerry is spending most of his time in office desperately trying to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the administration has seemingly struggled mightily to find a coherent approach to the turmoil in Egypt. After a year of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood government of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Obama foreign policy team was slow to wake up to the outrage this decision had generated inside Egypt or to understand the threat that the Islamist movement posed to the country’s future or American interests. Though this realization has been grudging, it is to their credit that they have resisted the impulse to label the Egyptian military’s actions as a coup (which is nothing less than the truth) or to exert much pressure on it to release Morsi or to cease its efforts to stifle the movement’s protests. But the escalating violence inside Egypt has heightened pressure on the administration to join the voices of outrage at the military’s violence against demonstrators or to use American aid to force it to stand down and restore what we are continually told was a democratically-elected government.
Some, including our Max Boot, believe this is exactly the time when American influence must be exerted to pressure Cairo to respect the human rights of its people and create an opening for moderate opposition figures that will gradually create a transition to genuine democracy. He’s right to point out that decades of U.S. support for tyrannies, such as the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, in the name of stability was a strategic mistake. Democracy promotion is not just an expression of idealism but a wise investment that will pay off in the long run. But though, along with many others, I might have been fooled into thinking the Arab Spring protests of 2011 in Cairo were the harbinger of democratic change, it’s now clear that such an outcome was never a possibility. America’s dilemma in Egypt today is not whether it will be associated with a military government but whether it will do whatever it can to aid the generals in their efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood never gets another chance to remake Egypt in their own image.
While encouraging democracy is embedded in America’s foreign policy DNA, it is vital that the administration understands that the main threat to both Egypt’s future and U.S. interests is the Brotherhood, not their military antagonists. Any effort or American pressure aimed at allowing the Brotherhood to get another shot at power, even by peaceful means, would, like the year of support for Morsi, be a tragic mistake.
Like other totalitarian movements, Islamists may use democracy as a tool to gain power but they neither believe in it nor do they feel bound by it once in power. That point was demonstrated many times throughout the 20th century, but up until this month’s coup halted Morsi’s drive for hegemony, it was also being illustrated in Egypt. The coup was the last chance for secular and liberal Egyptians to stop the Brotherhood before it was too late. Had they been allowed to go on consolidating power, the idea that they would have ever relinquished it by peaceful means is farcical. Indeed, the only way to create even a minimal space for democratic development is for the military to ensure that the Brotherhood is permanently excluded from positions of power. Rather than urging the military to allow the Brotherhood a political outlet, the U.S. should be standing behind its efforts to forever end the threat of another Brotherhood government. In this case, it would be the lack of a crackdown on the Islamists that would set the stage for future problems rather than the opposite.
This opens the U.S. up to charges of hypocrisy when Washington speaks out against other tyrannies that may not be friendly to America. But taking a stand against the Brotherhood is not antithetical to democracy promotion. Indeed, struggling against it is the prerequisite for any hope for Egypt. While it may be wise for the administration to urge, as Max advises, repressive Arab monarchies that are U.S. allies to move toward democracy, that can’t mean tolerating Islamists whose only goal is to impose their theocratic views on the region. While Obama rightly doesn’t wish to be associated with shootings in the streets of Cairo, pressuring the military to let up in what may prove to be a life and death struggle against the Brotherhood would be a critical error. The president has gone from blunder to blunder ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring. It is vital that he doesn’t take another misstep and do anything, even in the name of the cause of democracy, that would serve to complicate the efforts of Egyptians seeking to stop the Brotherhood.