An Egyptian court’s decision to order the release of former dictator Hosni Mubarak on the same day the new government arrested the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood may be seen as the last straw for the Obama administration. After weeks of dithering as it sought to balance America’s obvious interest in seeing the Muslim Brotherhood defeated with the desire to look as if we cared about the cause of democracy, Washington appears on the brink of cutting all aid to Cairo to demonstrate its anger over events there. But this, as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens so aptly put it today, is an “attitude,” not a policy.
It is also especially galling for this White House to be preening on Egypt in this manner because it was Obama who de-prioritized his predecessor’s effort to promote democracy in Egypt. Over the past five years, this administration drifted aimlessly from a position of strong support for Mubarak to one that embraced his Muslim Brotherhood successor Mohamed Morsi. Now that the military is back in charge, the president finds that authoritarians are no longer to his taste. Some have criticized those of us who have reminded Obama that his choice is between the military and the Brotherhood, not democracy, as practicing a cynical brand of realpolitik. But rather than a principled stand, this latest twist in U.S. policy that threatens, as I wrote yesterday, to reverse America’s landmark achievement of separating Egypt from its Soviet patrons, is a fit of immaturity not principle.
It should be conceded that the release of Mubarak at the very moment that it is struggling to maintain support in the West is, at the very least, bad optics for the new government. Mubarak has been held more or less at the behest of the Brotherhood government in the last year after some of the court cases against him collapsed, but the legal details don’t cancel out the fact that there is little doubt that he was a dictator who ordered the death of many opponents. In his defense, the idea that the Islamist totalitarians of the Brotherhood or the military have any standing to judge him is absurd. But keeping in jail and out of sight would have been the smart thing to do.
In fact his release may be a signal that coup leader Gen. Sisi and his regime have lost any hope of winning over Obama and the Europeans and are prepared to rely on the Saudis (who have promised to make good on any aid money withheld by the United States) or to shop for new friends abroad such as the Russians rather than bend to America’s feckless demands.
The president’s stand might have some coherence if it were part of a coherent worldview. But, of course, Obama had already discarded the Bush pro-democracy agenda when he took office as a neo-conservative heresy that needed to be replaced by a more realist approach. Yet now that he is faced with the necessity to put his realistic principles to the test in order to protect a vital Arab country from falling into the hands of Islamists or, worse yet, joining Syria as Vladimir Putin’s allies, the president has discovered a new interest in democracy.
The president had already displayed his contempt for the cause of Egyptian freedom during the year he embraced Morsi, so to pose now as its defender when to do so will be seen by Egyptians as sympathy for a movement most despise is more than hypocritical. Even Mubarak’s release does not offset the fact that what is at stake in Egypt is an effort to ensure that a despotic Islamist movement never gets another chance to rule. Having been offered a chance to choose between demonstrating a grasp of American interests and an immature response, the president has chosen the latter. Given the possibly serious consequences of such a decision, this may be something that Obama’s successors will be dealing with for many years to come.