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Note to Obama: Egypt Is a Zero-Sum Game

It’s not clear whether Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham really thought their presence in Cairo would help bring about reconciliation or at least an agreement between Egypt’s military government and the Muslim Brotherhood. But now that their mission has failed to influence the military to be more accommodating to a Brotherhood that clearly thinks it has no choice but to stand its ground on not accepting the coup that deposed Mohamed Morsi, the Obama administration is back where it was a month ago, pondering what to do about Egypt. With the military openly threatening more violence, the United States must once again decide whether its priority is to back the principle of democracy or back a government whose primary purpose dovetails with America’s long-term interests.

When Egypt’s interim president Adli Mansour said yesterday that, “the phase of diplomatic efforts has ended,” it was apparent that Western attempts to broker some sort of deal between the two sides of the standoff were not going to work. Since the Brotherhood may feel it has nothing to gain from backing away from a confrontation that will inevitably mean more violence, that puts President Obama in the difficult position of having to abandon the pretense that restoration of democracy in Egypt is either possible or desirable. While he along with McCain and Graham may think a solution must mean involving the Brotherhood in a new government, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the military commander who really runs the country, has no such illusions. Sisi seems to have grasped something that many of Egypt’s foreign backers seem not to understand: the conflict between the Brotherhood and the rest of the country is a zero-sum game. Any ground gained by the Islamists or a deal that will let them inch their way back to power is a mistake that will set the country back on the same path that led to the coup. It’s past time the United States understood it too. The choice there isn’t between the military and democracy. It’s between the military and Islamist rule.

It is very much to Secretary of State John Kerry’s credit that he seemed to signal last week that the administration is finally putting away its illusions about Egypt. Kerry caused a minor stir when he said last Thursday that rather than the coup (although, like all American officials he is constrained by law from calling the military takeover by its correct name) being an attack on democracy, it was actually an effort to restore it. Since the military had acted on the request of “millions and millions” of people, as he put it, he’s not wrong about that. But unfortunately, many otherwise sensible observers in the United States remain ready to cut off aid to the military government at any sign that it is prepared to use force to put down the Brotherhood’s campaign to restore Morsi. Indeed, even Kerry said that any more violence like the killings of Islamist demonstrators by the military in recent weeks was “unacceptable.”

Some of this is a hangover from the administration’s misguided embrace of the Brotherhood while it was in power. Fortunately, the president seems to have learned his lesson on this point. But as much as the United States is right to discourage violence in Cairo, President Obama must understand that Sisi is right to fear that if he lets the Brotherhood protests continue unmolested, he is setting the stage for trouble.

The coup was made necessary because Egypt’s experiment in democracy had gone terribly wrong. The Brotherhood was able to win elections because it was the only truly organized mass party in the country. But once in power, it showed that its drive for hegemony would not be restrained by anything. Had the military not acted, there is little doubt that Morsi and the Brotherhood would never have peacefully relinquished power or stopped until they had remade Egypt in their own image.

In the coming days and weeks as the Brotherhood continues to push for Morsi’s return to power, they are hoping that the West will be hamstrung by a desire to avoid the charge of hypocrisy and cut off the military. But the U.S. mustn’t fall into their trap. There is more to democracy than voting, and any solution that risks giving Morsi another chance to consolidate power would be a disaster for Egypt and the United States. Washington must be prepared to stick with the military no matter what happens in the streets of Cairo. In a zero-sum game with would-be Islamist totalitarians, there is no room for compromise. Sisi gets this. Let’s hope Obama does too.


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