With the Obama administration dithering on Syria and then embracing a new round of engagement with Iran, the turmoil in Egypt, which was the top foreign news story this past summer, has largely been out of the headlines since August. In the intervening months, the Egyptian military has been following up on the coup in which they ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi by suppressing the Islamist group. Though all indications point to the military retaining the support of most Egyptians—they only intervened to topple Morsi after tens of millions took to the streets to protest the Brotherhood’s push to transform the world’s most populous Arab country into an Islamist state—the situation remains fluid. In the last week alone some 900 Egyptians, including 100 police and military personnel, have been killed in violence sparked by Brotherhood protests. This latest outbreak is apparently the last straw for an Obama administration that had supported Morsi and discouraged the coup. As the New York Times reports, administration officials are saying that within days the U.S. will formally cut military aid to Egypt.
The aid cutoff will be trumpeted by the administration as a sign that it is serious about supporting democracy and upholding the rule of law. But if the goal here is to help end the violence in Egypt or bolster stability in the region, this is the worst mistake President Obama can make. U.S. influence in Egypt is already minimal, but a gesture that will be interpreted as encouraging the Brotherhood protests will be seen as evidence that, despite Washington’s denials, Obama really does favor the Islamists. After handing Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime’s Iranian allies an unexpected and unearned victory in Syria, it appears the administration is determined to pursue its grudge against the military even if it undermines what’s left of U.S. influence in the region as well as undermining the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
The bloody crackdowns on the Brotherhood are not easy to defend. But the difference between Cairo and Washington is not so much one about tactics as it is about whether a totalitarian Islamist party should have been allowed to hijack the post-Mubarak revolution and ensure that it could never be forced to give up power. While many of us may have hoped that the Arab Spring could bring democracy to Egypt, it was soon clear that this was a pipe dream. The choice in Egypt is not between democracy and the military but between an Islamist dictatorship and secular authoritarians. As such the U.S. should have little doubt about the relative attractiveness of the latter. If anything like democracy is ever to prevail in Egypt—a proposition that ought to be treated as doubtful even as a long-range hypothetical—it can only happen once the Brotherhood is eliminated as a political power.
The aid cutoff, which will reportedly not include some money aimed at bolstering counter-terrorism, won’t topple the military. But it will encourage the Brotherhood to persist in their effort to win back power. Thus rather than helping to ensure that violence is gradually eliminated, it more or less guarantees a longer struggle in which the Islamists will believe their military opponents are isolated.
The arguments in favor of cutting off aid or at least using the threat as leverage in order to force the military are based in an assumption that the Brotherhood is too strong and too numerous to be eliminated. But while the Brotherhood remains formidable, the military has already proved that the Islamists don’t have the support of the people as they had always claimed. The Obama administration has been trying to play both ends against the middle in Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak and failed miserably, as both Islamists and secular Egyptians blamed the U.S. for backing their opponents.
Had the U.S. cut aid at the time of the coup the policy would have been a mistake, but it would been consistent with past efforts to back the Brotherhood and to keep the military in its place. But to do so now after the Brotherhood is on the run and seemingly beaten is neither logical nor good policy.
It is also, as many in Israel have pointed out, a blow to regional security. The months since the coup have seen Cairo and Jerusalem working together as never before. The two countries have worked together to fight the growing al-Qaeda presence in the Sinai that had filled the vacuum left by the Brotherhood government. The military government has also placed tremendous financial pressure on the Hamas regime in Gaza, a policy that is a blow to terrorism as well as bolstering, at least in theory, the Israel-Palestinian peace process. By contrast, cutting off the aid will be a blow to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and strengthen the voices of those Egyptians who want to revise or junk it altogether.
The consequences of the cutoff cannot be fully predicted, but for the U.S. to blithely assume that Cairo has no other options for a foreign ally or military aid again demonstrates the amateurism that has largely characterized Obama’s foreign policy. The U.S. alliance with Egypt began when Anwar Sadat kicked the Soviets out in exchange for U.S. cash that was made contingent on Cairo keeping the peace with Israel. With Russia now regaining some of their lost prestige by Obama’s allowing Putin to have his way in Syria, is it really such a stretch to believe that Moscow might fill the void left by Washington? Does anyone, even in the Obama State Department, think that the causes of peace, stability, or even democracy would be advanced by another Putin foreign-policy triumph? Having already given new meaning to the term incompetence in its dealings in the Middle East, the administration may be about to make things even worse.