Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egypt coup

Obama’s Second Chance on Egypt

In the past year, as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government appeared set to take that country down the road to Islamist despotism, there were no signs that the Obama administration had any second thoughts about its role in these events. With the now deposed President Mohamed Morsi assuming dictatorial powers in the fashion of Hosni Mubarak, there was no acknowledgement that Obama’s eagerness to dump the former dictator might have been a mistake. Nor was there any indication that the president understood that the aggressive manner with which the U.S. pressured the Egyptian military to allow the Brotherhood to take power last year and the way our ambassador to Cairo seemed to cozy up to Morsi might not have been the smartest policy.

But almost miraculously after American policies had played a small but crucial role in enabling the Muslim Brotherhood to seize total power in the world’s most populous Arab country, President Obama has received a rare but precious gift: a second chance. The massive demonstrations protesting Morsi’s misrule that led to a military coup have given the president a chance to reboot American policy toward Egypt in a manner that could make it clear the U.S. priority is ensuring stability and stopping the Islamists. The question is, will he take advantage of this chance or will he, by pressuring the military and demonstrating ambivalence toward the possibility of a Brotherhood comeback, squander another opportunity to help nudge Egypt in the right direction?

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In the past year, as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government appeared set to take that country down the road to Islamist despotism, there were no signs that the Obama administration had any second thoughts about its role in these events. With the now deposed President Mohamed Morsi assuming dictatorial powers in the fashion of Hosni Mubarak, there was no acknowledgement that Obama’s eagerness to dump the former dictator might have been a mistake. Nor was there any indication that the president understood that the aggressive manner with which the U.S. pressured the Egyptian military to allow the Brotherhood to take power last year and the way our ambassador to Cairo seemed to cozy up to Morsi might not have been the smartest policy.

But almost miraculously after American policies had played a small but crucial role in enabling the Muslim Brotherhood to seize total power in the world’s most populous Arab country, President Obama has received a rare but precious gift: a second chance. The massive demonstrations protesting Morsi’s misrule that led to a military coup have given the president a chance to reboot American policy toward Egypt in a manner that could make it clear the U.S. priority is ensuring stability and stopping the Islamists. The question is, will he take advantage of this chance or will he, by pressuring the military and demonstrating ambivalence toward the possibility of a Brotherhood comeback, squander another opportunity to help nudge Egypt in the right direction?

Like many in the chattering classes that have commented on the situation in Egypt, the Obama administration seems to have mixed feelings about what happened in Cairo last week. After a year of embracing the Brotherhood government, the U.S. quickly bailed on it as Morsi’s excesses made his fall inevitable. But there is also a sense that the coup could potentially discredit not only the cause of democracy but allow America’s critics and enemies to once again associate the United States with authoritarian governments. But while we should always worry about the false perception that democracy is only suited to the West, there should be no doubt about where America’s sympathies are when it comes to a struggle between Islamism and its foes.

The problem with so much of what has been said in the past few days about Egypt is the misperception that what was going on in Cairo before the coup was somehow more democratic than what happened after it. It cannot be repeated too often that there is more to democracy than merely holding an election that enabled the most organized faction to seize power even if it is fundamentally opposed to democracy. That was exactly what occurred in Egypt in the last year as the Brotherhood won a series of votes that put it in a position to start a process by which it could ensure that its power would never be challenged again. Understood in that context, the coup wasn’t so much a putsch as it was a last ditch effort to save the country from drifting into a Brotherhood dictatorship that could not be undone by democratic means.

Thus, rather than setting deadlines or delivering ultimatums to the interim government that has replaced Morsi and his crew, the United States should be demonstrating that it will do whatever it can to help the military snuff out the threat of Islamist violence and then to proceed to replace Morsi with a more competent government. In the absence of a consensus about democratic values, democracy is impossible and that is the case in Egypt right now. Americans should have no illusions that what will follow Morsi will be Jeffersonian democracy or even a reasonably attractive facsimile. But it can be better than Mubarak. That should be enough for Obama.

Rather than act as if something terrible has happened, we need to acknowledge that the Brotherhood’s fall is a good thing for both Egypt and the United States. That may not win over the majority of Egyptians who not unreasonably concluded that Obama was supportive of the Brotherhood, but it will begin the process by which that awful image can be improved. But if, instead, President Obama repeats the mistakes he made in the past two years and concentrates his fire on the military in the coming days and weeks and forces them to step back from measures intended to ensure that the Brotherhood cannot institute a rebellion to reinstate Morsi, he will have squandered the second chance that fate has given him. 

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America’s Egypt Policy After Morsi

One of the oddities that confront makers of American foreign policy is that it is easier to deal with avowed enemies rather than wayward friends. Policy toward Iran or Syria or North Korea is more straightforward than policy toward Pakistan, Bahrain, or Egypt–all avowed American allies whose actions (suppressing dissent in the case of Egypt and Bahrain, supporting jihadist groups in the case of Pakistan) cause consternation in Washington. How far do we go to signal American displeasure and risk the strategic benefits we derive from our relationships with these states?

That question has been in sharp relief during the course of the Egyptian revolution/coup (revolucoup?) this week. The U.S. has a stake in promoting democracy in Egypt which, over the long run, is likely to make the country more stable and prosperous–but also a major stake in keeping Egypt committed to the Western camp and out of the clutches of Islamists. Those goals collided when the Egyptian armed forces–and millions of ordinary Egyptians–decided that the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi was heading in an authoritarian–and, just as important, incompetent–direction. So now the army has deposed Morsi. He and hundreds of other Brotherhood leaders appear to be under arrest and Egypt’s future is more uncertain than ever.

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One of the oddities that confront makers of American foreign policy is that it is easier to deal with avowed enemies rather than wayward friends. Policy toward Iran or Syria or North Korea is more straightforward than policy toward Pakistan, Bahrain, or Egypt–all avowed American allies whose actions (suppressing dissent in the case of Egypt and Bahrain, supporting jihadist groups in the case of Pakistan) cause consternation in Washington. How far do we go to signal American displeasure and risk the strategic benefits we derive from our relationships with these states?

That question has been in sharp relief during the course of the Egyptian revolution/coup (revolucoup?) this week. The U.S. has a stake in promoting democracy in Egypt which, over the long run, is likely to make the country more stable and prosperous–but also a major stake in keeping Egypt committed to the Western camp and out of the clutches of Islamists. Those goals collided when the Egyptian armed forces–and millions of ordinary Egyptians–decided that the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi was heading in an authoritarian–and, just as important, incompetent–direction. So now the army has deposed Morsi. He and hundreds of other Brotherhood leaders appear to be under arrest and Egypt’s future is more uncertain than ever.

The new interim government has promised to hold elections–but what if the Brotherhood wins the next round of balloting? That is not inconceivable, given the Brotherhood’s organizational strength and popularity in rural areas, notwithstanding the disastrous consequences of its recent period in power. Is the Brotherhood to be disqualified from the electoral process? If so, that would be a powerful inducement to Islamists, not only in Egypt but throughout the Muslim world, to give up any commitment to seeking power through peaceful means; it could cause many to embrace the more violent path urged by al-Qaeda and its ilk. That is a definite danger of the military stepping in. On the other hand, if the military didn’t step in, there would have been a danger that the Brotherhood would never be dislodged from power.

In confronting these difficult dilemmas, American policymakers would be well-advised not to outsmart themselves. There is always a temptation in Washington to try subtle stratagems that backfire in practice. That, in fact, is what has happened in Egypt where the Obama administration has managed to alienate both the Brotherhood and its adversaries. The anti-Islamist faction is mad at Washington because of seeming U.S. support for Morsi while in power–an impression furthered by U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson’s ill-advised remarks which seemed to be critical of coup plotters (understandable) while uncritical of the Morsi regime’s undemocratic excesses (inexcusable). Now the Brotherhood is mad at Washington too because of the impression that the U.S. winked at its overthrow.

Obama and his aides would be well advised to return to first principles–where they should have been to begin with. They need to make clear their support for liberal democracy, stressing the importance not just of elections but of checks and balances of the kind that Morsi disregarded while in power. The American ability to affect the outcome is admittedly limited–the only major leverage we have is the military aid we provide to the Egyptian army and that is unlikely to be cut off because it is tied to the continuation of the Camp David Accords. But even if Washington can’t guide events, it should at least make clear its commitment to the principles on which the United States itself is founded–and which we celebrated just yesterday.

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