Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egyptian coup

Will Egypt’s Elections Be Free and Fair?

After the July 2013 uprising, coup, or correction in Egypt—the debate over the terminology, while relevant to U.S. law regarding foreign assistance, can nonetheless be distracting to the broader conversation—the Egyptian military promised a quick transition back to civilian rule, a new constitutional order, and elections.

The Egyptian military has been true to its word in reality, even if Western policymakers debate the spirit of its moves. After the Egyptian military arrested former President Mohamed Morsi and ousted his government, it did appoint civilian place-keepers—Adly Mansour as president, for example, and Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister (Beblawi resigned in February). Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi might be the paramount power and he could very well be the next president, but he did not assume all power. That said, there is plenty of evidence upon which those who see Sisi’s ambitions more cynically can grasp.

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After the July 2013 uprising, coup, or correction in Egypt—the debate over the terminology, while relevant to U.S. law regarding foreign assistance, can nonetheless be distracting to the broader conversation—the Egyptian military promised a quick transition back to civilian rule, a new constitutional order, and elections.

The Egyptian military has been true to its word in reality, even if Western policymakers debate the spirit of its moves. After the Egyptian military arrested former President Mohamed Morsi and ousted his government, it did appoint civilian place-keepers—Adly Mansour as president, for example, and Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister (Beblawi resigned in February). Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi might be the paramount power and he could very well be the next president, but he did not assume all power. That said, there is plenty of evidence upon which those who see Sisi’s ambitions more cynically can grasp.

Sisi did, however, keep his word and return Egypt to a constitutional order, scrapping the constitution that Morsi pushed through that would have taken women back decades and entrenched Islamism beyond its electoral mandate. Critics, however, argued that the drafting of the new constitution was not inclusive enough. That was not entirely the interim government’s fault: With the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to reject the post-Morsi order rather than participate in it, there was little choice the new government had to move forward other than scrap the drafting of a new constitution; fortunately, they chose to push forward despite the Brotherhood’s attempts to delegitimize the new constitution.

The next step is elections. U.S. policymakers should certainly recognize by now after its democracy promotion experience of the Bush and Obama years that elections do not make a democracy. Nor are all elections free and fair. While many critics of the Egyptian government effectively want to move back to the pre-July order and allow the Muslim Brotherhood to hang itself with a rope of its owning making, that sentiment discounts the fact that Morsi and the Brotherhood did not seem to be as committed to democratic checks and balances once they entered office and consolidated control, and so may never have allowed the public to try them at the ballot box. Regardless, it is simply impossible to go back to the past. The question then becomes how to push ahead into the future. It would be self-defeating to call for democratization but denounce any attempt at a new election. At the same time, there is no reason to take the Egyptian government at its word when it says that it wants free and fair elections.

That is why last week’s announcement by the Egyptian government that they will allow not only outside observation of the May 26-27 elections, but credible outside observation, is good sign. Allowing the European Union to send observers is probably the best possible choice. Neither the National Democratic Institute nor the International Republican Institute would be keen let alone welcome to send observers after the Egyptian military had scapegoated them against the backdrop of the initial Arab Spring protests. Nor is the Carter Center credible, given President Jimmy Carter’s outspoken and seemingly unbalanced support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is a lot of anger on all sides relating to the situation in Egypt. No one is satisfied. Rather than nihilistically condemn Egypt to limbo because of anger over the events of last July, however, it is important to make the most of the current situation, and push Egypt to the reforms it so desperately needs to make so that the next president doesn’t simply engage in the same corruption and crony capitalism that led to anger boiling over in 2011. Let us hope that the European Union monitors will observe Egypt’s elections both in the long and short term, and that the Egyptian government will continue to have the self-confidence to embrace transparency as it moves forward. If the authorities in Cairo are showing good faith, that should be reciprocated.

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Obama Blunders Again on Egypt

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.

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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.

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When Is a Coup Not a Coup?

If you walk into Grand Central Terminal from Lexington Avenue, you will see a clock on the wall above the entrance to the Main Concourse. Below, carved in the stone, it says, “Eastern Standard Time.” That was Grand Central’s year-round time zone when it opened in 1913. But these days, from mid-March to early November, the clock displays eastern daylight time, not standard time.

The lesson here, obviously, is be careful what you carve in stone.

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If you walk into Grand Central Terminal from Lexington Avenue, you will see a clock on the wall above the entrance to the Main Concourse. Below, carved in the stone, it says, “Eastern Standard Time.” That was Grand Central’s year-round time zone when it opened in 1913. But these days, from mid-March to early November, the clock displays eastern daylight time, not standard time.

The lesson here, obviously, is be careful what you carve in stone.

Putting something into law is carving it in stone. Laws are always far easier to enact than they are to repeal. And we have just had a beautiful example of why putting something into law is often a dumb thing to do. Since 1961, when the Foreign Assistance Act was signed, the law requires that should a foreign country experience a coup d’état, U.S. aid to that country must cease. This is fine in theory. This country would very much like the whole world to be governed by democratic governments elected in free and fair elections. We could cut the military budget by ninety percent if it were.

But that is not the way the whole world works and we have to live with reality. The purpose of U.S. foreign aid is not to convince the world that we are a bunch of nice guys but to advance American interests. And sometimes interests other than fostering democratic government must take priority. During the Cold War, we had to make nice with some very unsavory regimes.

What happened in Egypt on July 5 was as clearly a coup as anything could be. The Egyptian military, employing force majeure, overthrew the first democratically elected government in Egyptian history and took the president into custody, where he remains, incommunicado. If that wasn’t a coup, whatever could be? But for valid reasons of state, the Obama administration has been flatly refusing to call a coup a coup. To be sure, the Morsi government had been democratically elected, but so had Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933. And, like the Nazis, once in office, the Morsi government immediately began subverting democracy at every turn. Given what we know now, would we have objected to the Wehrmacht giving Hitler the boot in 1934? It would have been a coup, for sure, but thank God for it. After all, both Hitler and Morsi were, in effect, carrying out their own coups d’état from within.

Politicians have often had to be semantically artful. In 1941, as FDR slowly maneuvered the country into joining the allies in a war the country did not want to fight but which Roosevelt knew had to be fought, he agreed to take over the defense of Iceland from the hard-pressed British. But he had a problem: he had promised the American people he would not station U.S. forces outside North America.  What to do? Simple: Roosevelt just declared that Iceland was actually part of North America. It was geographically doubtful to say the least, but politically sound.

The Obama administration is anything but artful when it comes to foreign policy. They have managed to alienate just about every political faction in Egypt. But they’re right not to call a coup a coup in this case.

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Aid Has Not Bought U.S. Leverage in Egypt

With more than 500 people dead as a result of the Egyptian army’s brutal assault on Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo, it is a little late in the day for President Obama to be issuing standard condemnations. Even canceling the annual Bright Star military exercise, while undoubtedly the right call (it would have been a travesty to see U.S. personnel exercising with Egyptian soldiers not long after they had slain all these civilians), does not go far enough.

Up until now I have been against canceling U.S. military aid to Egypt, amounting to $1.3 billion a year, because I thought it was important to preserve the leverage that aid buys us. Now, however, it is clear that the U.S. has no leverage at all.

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With more than 500 people dead as a result of the Egyptian army’s brutal assault on Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo, it is a little late in the day for President Obama to be issuing standard condemnations. Even canceling the annual Bright Star military exercise, while undoubtedly the right call (it would have been a travesty to see U.S. personnel exercising with Egyptian soldiers not long after they had slain all these civilians), does not go far enough.

Up until now I have been against canceling U.S. military aid to Egypt, amounting to $1.3 billion a year, because I thought it was important to preserve the leverage that aid buys us. Now, however, it is clear that the U.S. has no leverage at all.

The Obama administration has been quietly advising the generals behind the scenes to de-escalate the conflict in Cairo. Instead the generals ordered armored vehicles and troops to assault the sit-ins, and never mind the casualty count. At this point it is not clear what purpose U.S. aid serves beyond associating the U.S. with the heinous actions of what looks increasingly to be a military dictatorship.

The aid is designed to buy peace between Egypt and Israel, but there is scant chance of the military regime initiating hostilities against Israel–it is too busy making war on its own people. I am under no illusion that an aid cutoff would influence the Egyptian army; it will survive on subsidies from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

Nor am I under any illusions about the nature of the opposition the army is facing–the Muslim Brotherhood during its time in power showed, as if any proof were necessary, that it is a power-hungry, Islamist organization with no respect for democratic principles.

Faced with a choice of unpalatable adversaries, the U.S. would be well advised to stick by its principles–the rule of law, the right to protest, free elections, and all the rest. If we continue to fund the Egyptian military, however, it will make it appear as if the U.S. supports this bloody crackdown–and it could make the U.S. complicit in the emergence of a new threat from violent Islamism.

Al-Qaeda, recall, has its roots in an earlier era of Egyptian repression against the Islamists; the current head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was once tortured in an Egyptian prison. The Egyptian military seems hell-bent on fostering another outburst of violent radicalism, and there is little the U.S. can do to stop them. But at least we don’t have to give our stamp of approval to this misguided and ruthless crackdown.

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How Can Israel Entrust Its Security to People Who Got Egypt So Wrong?

To the many reasons why the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” are a nonstarter, we can now add another: the situation in Egypt. The problem isn’t just that the chaos on Israel’s previously stable southern border decreases its willingness to take “risks for peace” that could replicate this situation in the West Bank. It’s also what the situation says about the Obama administration’s judgment.

As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros reminds us, when the Egyptian revolution broke out two years ago, the administration sought guidance in historical precedents:

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To the many reasons why the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” are a nonstarter, we can now add another: the situation in Egypt. The problem isn’t just that the chaos on Israel’s previously stable southern border decreases its willingness to take “risks for peace” that could replicate this situation in the West Bank. It’s also what the situation says about the Obama administration’s judgment.

As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros reminds us, when the Egyptian revolution broke out two years ago, the administration sought guidance in historical precedents:

According to the New York Times, President Obama asked his staff to study transitions in more than 50 countries around the world in order to understand and predict where Egypt and other countries in the Middle East might be heading. After extensive study, his staffers predicted “that Egypt is analogous to South Korea, the Philippines and Chile.” Months later, the administration was still confident in its assessment. While aware of the obstacles that were on the way during the desired transition to democracy, Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor was adamant that, “The trajectory of change is in the right direction.”

Needless to say, Egypt turned out nothing like South Korea, the Philippines, or Chile. The Muslim Brotherhood took power, only to prove both so incompetent and so anti-democratic that a year later, the military ousted it by popular demand (anti-Brotherhood demonstrations drew an incredible 14 million people into the streets). The Brotherhood didn’t go quietly, and now there’s a risk that this week’s carnage in Cairo will spark a civil war.

None of this was unpredictable. Indeed, from the very beginning, Israeli officials warned unanimously that nothing good would come of Egypt’s revolution, and most Israeli commentators (myself included) agreed–for which we were roundly condemned by members of America’s foreign-policy establishment. Nor is it really surprising that Israel’s assessments proved more accurate than America’s: What happens in Israel’s immediate neighborhood has far more impact on Israelis’ lives than it does on Americans, and therefore Israelis invest more time and effort in trying to understand it.

Yet now the same people who got Egypt so badly wrong are demanding that Israelis trust them to referee an Israeli-Palestinian deal. The administration even sent a senior general, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan John Allen, “to define Israel’s security requirements” for it–and woe betide Israel if it begs to differ. But actually, President Barack Obama didn’t bother waiting for Allen’s conclusions; he asserted two years ago that the border must be “based on the 1967 lines,” and that this is perfectly compatible with Israel’s security needs. Never mind that no Israeli map of defensible borders has ever agreed.

In other words, the administration has already made clear that it won’t support Israel’s security demands; it expects Israel to bow to its judgment. But the people who thought Egypt’s revolution was going to resemble Chile or South Korea aren’t people whose judgment Israel can possibly rely on to assure its vital security needs. Under this situation, reaching a deal that satisfies Israel’s minimum security needs would be impossible even if all the other issues were somehow magically resolved.

But in fact, Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear he wants to deal with borders and security first. And that means the blow-up won’t be long in coming.

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The Myth of Authoritarian Stability

For years American presidents gave a blank check to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The only attempt to pressure him into making any meaningful political reforms occurred during President George W. Bush’s first term in office and was abandoned in the second term when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reasserted a traditional stability-above-all foreign policy that was continued by President Obama during his first two years in office. We know where that got us: to a revolution in 2011 which overthrew Mubarak and led to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood regime bent on consolidating power at all costs, the Brotherhood being the best-organized opposition group in the entire country. Now that Brotherhood government, too, has been overthrown and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war.

There is a lesson here in our relations with other dictatorial Middle Eastern states: Washington needs to push them to provide an opening to the moderate opposition and gradually transform in a democratic direction as the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea did in the 1980s. Simply clamping down harder is only a recipe for creating a bigger explosion later.

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For years American presidents gave a blank check to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The only attempt to pressure him into making any meaningful political reforms occurred during President George W. Bush’s first term in office and was abandoned in the second term when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reasserted a traditional stability-above-all foreign policy that was continued by President Obama during his first two years in office. We know where that got us: to a revolution in 2011 which overthrew Mubarak and led to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood regime bent on consolidating power at all costs, the Brotherhood being the best-organized opposition group in the entire country. Now that Brotherhood government, too, has been overthrown and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war.

There is a lesson here in our relations with other dictatorial Middle Eastern states: Washington needs to push them to provide an opening to the moderate opposition and gradually transform in a democratic direction as the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea did in the 1980s. Simply clamping down harder is only a recipe for creating a bigger explosion later.

Yet that is precisely what Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states are doing, emboldened by the overthrow of the Brotherhood government in Egypt with what is seen, rightly or wrongly, as the connivance of the West. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Saudi crackdown extends not only to Muslim Brothers and other Sunni fundamentalists but also to Shiite protesters and, most worrisome of all, to more liberal demonstrators such as the women petitioning for the right to drive.

It is easy for Washington to ignore human rights in its dealings with these regimes, and hard, if it does bring up the human rights issue, to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, although the more so when the Obama administration does so little to help dissidents in Iran or to protest the ongoing crackdown in Egypt. Yet the U.S. will be making a historic mistake–the same mistake, in fact, that it made in Egypt–if it turns a blind eye to the abusive internal conduct of its Middle Eastern allies. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning for these authoritarian regimes and their backers in the West. The best way for the Gulf kingdoms to ensure their stability in the long run is not to crack heads now but to create an opening for constitutional monarchies to slowly develop.

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Egyptian Military Playing with Fire

It is possible for regimes to get away with massacres of unarmed protesters. China’s ruthless repression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 is evidence of that. But it only works if there is a strong regime that is internally united behind the need for repression and that maintains the tacit support of most citizens. Otherwise, trying to shoot protesters can backfire, as both Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar Assad have learned in the past few years: Their ham-handed attempts at repression instead sparked civil wars.

It is impossible to know into which category Egypt will fall, but the latter possibility–a crackdown triggering a civil war–looks more likely than the former at this point, a crackdown being sullenly accepted by regime opponents and the population at large. Yet Egypt’s generals, who have seized back the reins of power, seem oblivious to this danger. Buoyed by popular protests against “terrorism” that they themselves organized, they gave the go-ahead to the security forces to open fire on crowds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo. At least 72 people were killed on Saturday, many, it seems, with a single shot to the torso or head–most likely denoting police or army snipers at work.

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It is possible for regimes to get away with massacres of unarmed protesters. China’s ruthless repression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 is evidence of that. But it only works if there is a strong regime that is internally united behind the need for repression and that maintains the tacit support of most citizens. Otherwise, trying to shoot protesters can backfire, as both Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar Assad have learned in the past few years: Their ham-handed attempts at repression instead sparked civil wars.

It is impossible to know into which category Egypt will fall, but the latter possibility–a crackdown triggering a civil war–looks more likely than the former at this point, a crackdown being sullenly accepted by regime opponents and the population at large. Yet Egypt’s generals, who have seized back the reins of power, seem oblivious to this danger. Buoyed by popular protests against “terrorism” that they themselves organized, they gave the go-ahead to the security forces to open fire on crowds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo. At least 72 people were killed on Saturday, many, it seems, with a single shot to the torso or head–most likely denoting police or army snipers at work.

Predictably, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim claimed that the shooting was all the work of protesters and that his police officers “have never and never will shoot a bullet on any Egyptian.” The bulk of the evidence–including videos released by participants–suggests otherwise. While the crowd of protesters may have thrown some rocks at police and built barricades and may even have fired a few shots, the violence was shockingly one-sided, as indicated by the casualty toll–there were few reports of police officers being killed or wounded and many, many reports of casualties among the demonstrators.

The military, emboldened by the ease with which it ousted the Morsi government from power, appears to imagine that it no longer needs to make any compromises–that it can simply crush the Muslim Brotherhood by force. And perhaps it can. But the generals are making a dangerous gamble: They are pushing a large, well-organized movement–indeed the largest and most effective organization in Egypt outside the army itself–into a corner from which violence offers the only avenue of escape. The New York Times’s Robert F. Worth, who has been providing yeoman coverage from Cairo, notes perceptively “the Brotherhood’s only reliable partners now are other Islamist groups whose members may be more willing to use violent or radical tactics.”

Worth also points out: “Its options are limited in any case, because to back down now, with no guarantee from Egypt’s interim government that the Brotherhood would be spared deeper repression in the future, could be political suicide.” Even if Brotherhood leaders do want to back down, their ability to do so may be limited because young hotheads are going to fight back and they could wind up dragging their more cautious elders with them.

For years the Brotherhood put its resources behind peaceful regime change, a strategy that culminated in its victory in the first and so far only post-Mubarak election. The military’s overthrow of that regime and now its willingness to slaughter Brotherhood supporters in the street may toss that peaceful commitment out the window and plunge Egypt into the vortex of civil war.

Maybe there is still a way out of this impasse, but it is hard to have any confidence that Egypt’s generals–who have enriched themselves for years while the country has stagnated around them–know what they are doing. It appears they are simply doing what comes naturally to military men: using force–and never mind the consequences.

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Rule of Law Fades Further in Egypt

Given the birth pangs of democracy in the West–ranging from Cromwell’s dictatorship in Britain and the terror of the French Revolution to the bloodletting of the U.S. Civil War and two world wars–it is no surprise that the path of political progress in the Middle East is neither smooth nor easy. It is, nevertheless, dismaying to see Iraq growing increasingly unstable, Syria still in the throes of civil war with the Assad regime gradually gaining ground, and, in the largest Arab country of all, increasing chaos in Egypt.

Twelve more people died in various clashes across Egypt on Tuesday. Especially ominous was the bombing of a police headquarters in the city of Mansoura: Although only one person died and 19 others were injured, this could well be a sign that Islamist opponents of the new military-dominated regime are not going to go away quietly and will instead resort to terrorism to try to win back power.

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Given the birth pangs of democracy in the West–ranging from Cromwell’s dictatorship in Britain and the terror of the French Revolution to the bloodletting of the U.S. Civil War and two world wars–it is no surprise that the path of political progress in the Middle East is neither smooth nor easy. It is, nevertheless, dismaying to see Iraq growing increasingly unstable, Syria still in the throes of civil war with the Assad regime gradually gaining ground, and, in the largest Arab country of all, increasing chaos in Egypt.

Twelve more people died in various clashes across Egypt on Tuesday. Especially ominous was the bombing of a police headquarters in the city of Mansoura: Although only one person died and 19 others were injured, this could well be a sign that Islamist opponents of the new military-dominated regime are not going to go away quietly and will instead resort to terrorism to try to win back power.

It is an ominous sign when government spokesmen are forced to deny that Egypt will be “another Syria,” but unfortunately the military’s hardline policies are making such a result more, not less, likely. Rather than trying to reach accommodation with the Islamists, who for all their faults did win a free election, the army is demonizing them as “traitors” who must be rooted out. Dispensing with the facade of civilian rule, the military commander, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, is calling for mass protests to give the military a mandate to crack down on “terrorism” and “violence,” which, if delivered, no doubt will be interpreted as a mandate to crack down on all opposition, period.

Egypt is seeing not the rule of law but the rule of the mob and the military. Alas, history teaches that when well-organized movements with mass support are pushed out of the political process, they are likely to resort to violence. See the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, or Egypt’s own bloodletting during that decade during a war against radical jihadists.

The U.S., beating a hasty and unwise retreat from the Middle East, is not a significant factor in these developments. President Obama is trying to be as balanced as possible, refusing to curtail the $1.3 billion in military aid while stopping the shipment of four F-16s that the military wants but does not really need. Such a gesture is not likely to achieve any results beyond highlighting our ineffectuality.

It would be a supreme and dismal irony if Obama, having campaigned on a pledge that the tide of war is “receding,” presides over growing conflict not only in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan (following the post-2014 U.S. drawdown) but in Egypt as well. Instead of appointing a special envoy to broker Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, which are going nowhere, the president and his secretary of state would be well advised to focus their resources on Egypt, which will be of far greater importance to the region’s future than the tiny Palestinian lands.

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Egyptians Right to Ignore Obama’s Advice

The Obama administration has been forced to navigate a difficult path in the past week. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has forced it to balance its rhetorical support of democracy with the necessity to acknowledge that the military coup that forced Mohamed Morsi from office was a product of a popular backlash against the Brotherhood’s excesses and drive for total power. But as much as Washington has slowly begun distancing itself from the strategy of embracing the Brotherhood that characterized U.S. policy for the past year, the president still can’t quite grasp the realities of the conflict in Cairo. The U.S. decision to pressure the military to release Islamists they have arrested, or to include them in a new government, is exactly the sort of tone deaf advice that has cratered America’s reputation in Egypt.

But the fact that the military is rejecting Obama’s advice and thereby endangering the more than $2 billion a year they get in U.S. aid shows just how out of touch the administration is with the reality on the ground. The administration is treading a bit more carefully on Egypt than it was a year ago, when they were strong-arming the army into letting the Brotherhood take over. But Obama and his foreign policy team need to wrap their brains around a basic truth that the Egyptian generals are forced to deal with: the conflict with a group like the Brotherhood is a zero-sum game. Allowing the Islamists freedom to organize or letting Morsi re-enter the government would merely give the Brotherhood a leg up in its effort to seize back the reins of power. And anyone, include the fools in the State Department and the White House, who thinks the Brotherhood will stop at anything once they gain back what they have lost, understands nothing about the movement.

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The Obama administration has been forced to navigate a difficult path in the past week. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has forced it to balance its rhetorical support of democracy with the necessity to acknowledge that the military coup that forced Mohamed Morsi from office was a product of a popular backlash against the Brotherhood’s excesses and drive for total power. But as much as Washington has slowly begun distancing itself from the strategy of embracing the Brotherhood that characterized U.S. policy for the past year, the president still can’t quite grasp the realities of the conflict in Cairo. The U.S. decision to pressure the military to release Islamists they have arrested, or to include them in a new government, is exactly the sort of tone deaf advice that has cratered America’s reputation in Egypt.

But the fact that the military is rejecting Obama’s advice and thereby endangering the more than $2 billion a year they get in U.S. aid shows just how out of touch the administration is with the reality on the ground. The administration is treading a bit more carefully on Egypt than it was a year ago, when they were strong-arming the army into letting the Brotherhood take over. But Obama and his foreign policy team need to wrap their brains around a basic truth that the Egyptian generals are forced to deal with: the conflict with a group like the Brotherhood is a zero-sum game. Allowing the Islamists freedom to organize or letting Morsi re-enter the government would merely give the Brotherhood a leg up in its effort to seize back the reins of power. And anyone, include the fools in the State Department and the White House, who thinks the Brotherhood will stop at anything once they gain back what they have lost, understands nothing about the movement.

On the surface, the U.S. position on the current impasse in Egypt seems reasonable. The call to de-escalate the conflict and to reconstruct a democratic process is in line with America’s values as well as a belief that civil war is the worst possible outcome for both Egyptians and regional stability.

But the Egyptian generals understand that this was their one chance to stop the Brotherhood from irrevocably changing their country. Prior to the election they won, the Brotherhood worked hard to improve their image and sell the West on the notion that they were merely religious democrats who wouldn’t impose their beliefs on the rest of the country. But once in power, they proved to be not only incompetent at the business of running the country but quickly moved to seize total power in a way that might make it difficult if not impossible to ever depose them via democratic means. The demonstrators that took to the streets in unprecedented numbers earlier this month understood it was a now-or-never moment in which they sought to take back the country before it was too late.

That’s why the urgings of senior U.S. diplomat William Burns to the military to free the Brotherhood detainees or to bring them into a new coalition are being rejected. Once free, the Islamists won’t be long in seeking to use their supporters to topple the new government and impose a new order that will ensure the end of any independent sources of power in Cairo.

It should also be noted that the Islamists were equally unwilling to listen to Burns. They, too, see the power struggle in terms that seem to have eluded the Americans. Seeking to bridge the gap between the Brotherhood and the secular liberals and their military supporters is as much of a fool’s errand as Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest effort to revive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

At this point, there are no good options left for the United States. Neither side in the conflict in Egypt is perfect. But what Obama needs to understand is that though the Morsi/Brotherhood government may have been elected, it was as much a threat to freedom as the military. It’s time for the U.S. to step back and let the new government do what it must to ensure the Islamists won’t launch a civil war. A failure to do so won’t help democracy. Nor will it enhance America’s influence in a country where Obama already has zero credibility.

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The Wrong “Coup” Debate

The Obama administration endured some mockery when it tried to refer to antiterror efforts as “overseas contingency operations” and terrorist attacks as “man-caused disasters.” But there have been far worse symptoms of the same affliction, such as when Susan Rice, at the time working in the Clinton administration, reportedly worried about calling the Rwandan genocide a “genocide,” reasoning that “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional midterm] election?”

Euphemism and terminology are again at the forefront of foreign-policy decision making, this time, as Max referenced yesterday, with regard to whether the U.S. should continue supplying Egypt with military and economic aid. If you support continuing the aid but don’t want to cross the U.S. law that says the Egyptian coup would automatically trigger a suspension of aid, what are your options? The first is to do what the Obama administration is doing, and not call it a coup. But some congressional Republicans have a second idea, according to Reuters:

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The Obama administration endured some mockery when it tried to refer to antiterror efforts as “overseas contingency operations” and terrorist attacks as “man-caused disasters.” But there have been far worse symptoms of the same affliction, such as when Susan Rice, at the time working in the Clinton administration, reportedly worried about calling the Rwandan genocide a “genocide,” reasoning that “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional midterm] election?”

Euphemism and terminology are again at the forefront of foreign-policy decision making, this time, as Max referenced yesterday, with regard to whether the U.S. should continue supplying Egypt with military and economic aid. If you support continuing the aid but don’t want to cross the U.S. law that says the Egyptian coup would automatically trigger a suspension of aid, what are your options? The first is to do what the Obama administration is doing, and not call it a coup. But some congressional Republicans have a second idea, according to Reuters:

U.S. lawmakers will begin to vote as soon as next week on legislation that could continue aid to Egypt even if the Obama administration determines that the ouster of elected President Mohamed Mursi was a military coup, lawmakers and aides said on Thursday….

Republican U.S. Representative Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House of Representatives subcommittee in charge of the aid, said her panel could consider allowing more flexibility, such as language that would allow the aid to continue if doing so were deemed to be in the U.S. national security interest.

Granger said she is not considering changing the coup language but that it was possible for Congress to change it to make it more flexible.

“There is not a waiver (provision) in the coup legislation,” Granger told Reuters in an interview. “That could be changed, however, if the Congress says we are going to allow a waiver.”

This may sound like an easy out, but there are drawbacks. Giving the president the power to waive foreign-policy laws when he doesn’t want to follow them renders the law itself extraneous: laws, like ethical principles, prove their worth when they are difficult to heed. The granting of a waiver for a specific purpose may sound limited, but it sets a precedent that will be repeated. Whether something is in the nation’s interest or constitutes a crisis is open to interpretation.

But leaving the law as-is presents its own problems, not least of which is that our officials begin to sound ridiculous by never calling anything by its name. That eventually takes its toll on policy as well, because it renders governance in Orwellian terms and habituates the practice of intentionally misleading the public. And the president is the elected commander in chief and deserves a certain amount of deference in conducting foreign policy according to his convictions.

But the Obama administration has more to worry about with perceived neutrality than whether to call this a coup. Supporters of the administration’s foreign policy have defended Obama on realist grounds that America should work with whomever comes out on top of the power struggle in Egypt rather than try to influence the outcome. When the Arab Spring first swept through Egypt, the administration waited for the dust to settle and then accepted the facts on the ground. But the military’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi has signaled that Egypt is in the midst of something far more dangerous and unstable than a simple power struggle. It seems to have entered a cycle of unrest and popular rebellion. The dust just won’t settle.

That’s why, strategically, whether the administration calls Morsi’s overthrow a “coup” is beside the point. If Obama calls it a coup, he will appear to side with Morsi. If he doesn’t, he will appear to side with the military. Suspending the aid now will send the wrong signal, because whatever the president does will be seen as a response to the events that immediately preceded it. He needn’t be seen as for or against the military, but he ought to be clearly opposed to perpetual military rule or antidemocratic backsliding. The point, then, is not about identifying coups, but preventing them and the conditions in which they materialize.

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Rolling Back the Muslim Brotherhood

The military coup in Egypt has, of course, been headline news for more than a week now. Pundits and politicians may debate whether or not the United States should cut off aid to Egypt, but that issue is becoming largely moot: While the United States debates suspending $1.6 billion in annual aid, the oil-rich emirates of the Persian Gulf have stepped in to offer $12 billion. While Iran and Turkey condemn the coup, and the Obama administration remains ambivalent, most Arab states applauded it. Why?

It is ironic that while the Obama administration bent over backwards to embrace and recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as converts to democracy, Arab governments who spoke their language and understood their actions approached the Brotherhood with trepidation and complained behind-the-scenes about the potential backlash they might suffer because of U.S. naiveté.

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The military coup in Egypt has, of course, been headline news for more than a week now. Pundits and politicians may debate whether or not the United States should cut off aid to Egypt, but that issue is becoming largely moot: While the United States debates suspending $1.6 billion in annual aid, the oil-rich emirates of the Persian Gulf have stepped in to offer $12 billion. While Iran and Turkey condemn the coup, and the Obama administration remains ambivalent, most Arab states applauded it. Why?

It is ironic that while the Obama administration bent over backwards to embrace and recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as converts to democracy, Arab governments who spoke their language and understood their actions approached the Brotherhood with trepidation and complained behind-the-scenes about the potential backlash they might suffer because of U.S. naiveté.

Case in point is al-Eslah, the Muslim Brotherhood branch in the United Arab Emirates. On July 9, the United Arab Emirates sentenced 68 adherents to up to 15 years in prison on charges that they had plotted a coup (26 others were acquitted). The trial had been ongoing for several months. While many of the headlines in the West focused on alleged human rights abuses suffered by the suspects—and the UAE is probably not blameless here—the evidence also appears overwhelming that al-Eslah is guilty and that it has sought to sponsor terrorism in one of the Middle East’s most stable and pro-Western corners.

The U.S. government has tied al-Eslah’s charity, Human Appeal International, to terrorism. The defendants in the trial had been involved with groups led by Youssef Qaradawi–a Muslim Brotherhood preacher whose support for terror is well documented.

The lesson is clear: While the State Department and White House played footsies with the Brotherhood in Egypt, the group used its newfound legitimacy to expand its campaign of destabilization across the Middle East. Muslim Brotherhood front groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America often threaten to label any criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood and its agenda “Islamophobic,” and that’s enough to cow the White House and State Department. It’s hard to accuse any Arab state of “Islamophobia,” however. Perhaps, then, rather than vacillate about the group’s downfall in Egypt, the United States should take a hint from those who know the group best, cheer their downfall, and work to roll back the group further in places like Gaza, Turkey, and Tunisia.

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Leverage, Don’t End, Aid to Egypt

Three of the foreign policy analysts I esteem the most–Robert Kagan, Elliott Abrams, and John McCain–argue that Egypt has just experienced a military coup and accordingly under U.S. law the Obama administration must suspend military aid until constitutional governance is restored.

They are clearly right that Egypt has experienced a military coup, albeit a popular coup. They are right, too, about the danger of indefinite military rule. But for the time being, at least, I believe the dangers of cutting off aid outweigh the benefits of doing so. Indeed it is hard to think of any immediate benefit, since an aid cut-off would hardly compel the generals to give up power.

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Three of the foreign policy analysts I esteem the most–Robert Kagan, Elliott Abrams, and John McCain–argue that Egypt has just experienced a military coup and accordingly under U.S. law the Obama administration must suspend military aid until constitutional governance is restored.

They are clearly right that Egypt has experienced a military coup, albeit a popular coup. They are right, too, about the danger of indefinite military rule. But for the time being, at least, I believe the dangers of cutting off aid outweigh the benefits of doing so. Indeed it is hard to think of any immediate benefit, since an aid cut-off would hardly compel the generals to give up power.

The new government in Cairo has just received $8 billion in pledges from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with no strings attached. That far outweighs the $1.5 billion a year that the U.S. provides. All that an American aid cutoff at this point would achieve would be to alienate the Egyptian military and–more importantly–the opposition parties which backed Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow.

Liberal Egyptians are already convinced that the U.S. is in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood because of the failure of President Obama and his ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson, to speak out forcefully against Morsi’s illegal power grab while in the presidency. An aid cutoff now, after Morsi has been overthrown, would only serve to completely alienate our natural allies without winning over the Muslim Brotherhood, which is ideologically opposed to the United States and always will be. An aid cutoff would also take away a major reason for Egypt to abide by the Camp David Accords, which it did even while Morsi was in power. Thus President Obama is right to avoid using the “c” word in public, no matter how much rhetorical legerdemain is required to avoid speaking honestly about what has transpired in Egypt.

Rather than cut off aid, the U.S. should use the leverage that the aid gives us to push for a better long-term outcome that stresses the content of democracy–rule of law, free media, vibrant opposition parties–rather than simply a winner-takes-all vote, which is how Morsi saw his slim electoral mandate. Behind the scenes, the U.S. should be working to help the more liberal parties so that, when the next election comes, they will be able to beat the Muslim Brotherhood fair and square. (For more details of what I have in mind, see this Policy Innovation Memo co-authored with Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution, outlining the need to reinvigorate the U.S. government’s capacity for political warfare.)

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Bring Anne Patterson Home

Anne Patterson is the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and, fairly or unfairly, has become the target of ire for many of the Egyptian protestors. Josh Rogin and Eli Lake have a useful piece today in the Daily Beast describing how Patterson reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood and how she ended up antagonizing many of those taking to the streets to protest President Mohamed Morsi’s rule. They conclude:

Now Patterson may be up for a promotion that would take her out of Cairo; President Obama has reportedly considered nominating her to be the next assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs. But the prospective confirmation process would likely be complicated by her recent notoriety, which could scare the White House away from going through with the move. “Even if the Egyptians blame Anne as a symbol of purported messages that in hindsight seem ill advised, one hopes the White House would not punish her for carrying out faithfully its bidding,” one former administration official said. “I do wince in reading her public remarks on June 18. I’m sure she herself would edit those remarks, if she could. But even if the Egyptian people now see her and judge her activities only in the context of those remarks, Washington can surely have a more sophisticated understanding of the role she played.”

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Anne Patterson is the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and, fairly or unfairly, has become the target of ire for many of the Egyptian protestors. Josh Rogin and Eli Lake have a useful piece today in the Daily Beast describing how Patterson reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood and how she ended up antagonizing many of those taking to the streets to protest President Mohamed Morsi’s rule. They conclude:

Now Patterson may be up for a promotion that would take her out of Cairo; President Obama has reportedly considered nominating her to be the next assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs. But the prospective confirmation process would likely be complicated by her recent notoriety, which could scare the White House away from going through with the move. “Even if the Egyptians blame Anne as a symbol of purported messages that in hindsight seem ill advised, one hopes the White House would not punish her for carrying out faithfully its bidding,” one former administration official said. “I do wince in reading her public remarks on June 18. I’m sure she herself would edit those remarks, if she could. But even if the Egyptian people now see her and judge her activities only in the context of those remarks, Washington can surely have a more sophisticated understanding of the role she played.”

Perhaps Patterson should not be punished—especially if she was following a policy, however misguided, that was dictated to her from above. But career diplomats should serve not to attain their highest ambitions, but to most effectively represent the United States. In that respect, they should be no different that career military officers, most of whom take assignments based on what is needed at the time and not what will look best on their resume or most please their families. Egypt is an important country, and the only question that the State Department and White House should consider is whether, given the events of the past month, Patterson is able to effectively represent the United States at this time. It would be hard to answer that question in any way other than no. In which case, it’s time for Patterson to pack, and for President Obama to appoint a seasoned diplomat without as much baggage to take her place.

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Aid to Egypt Is a Small Price to Pay to Prevent War

The Republican foreign policy establishment, headed by luminaries such as Senator John McCain and former White House official Elliott Abrams, is urging an immediate cutoff of U.S. military aid to Egypt in response to the country’s revolution-cum-coup. The Obama administration has demurred, saying “it would not be wise to abruptly change our assistance program,” and vowed to take its time in deciding whether what happened legally mandates an aid cutoff, given the “significant consequences that go along with this determination.” 

For once, official Israel is wholeheartedly on Obama’s side. Senior Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down spent hours on the phone with their American counterparts this weekend to argue against an aid cutoff, and Israeli diplomats in Washington have been ordered to make this case to Congress as well. Israel’s reasoning is simple: An aid cutoff will make the volatile situation on its southern border even worse–and that is bad not only for Israel, but for one of America’s major interests in the region: upholding the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

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The Republican foreign policy establishment, headed by luminaries such as Senator John McCain and former White House official Elliott Abrams, is urging an immediate cutoff of U.S. military aid to Egypt in response to the country’s revolution-cum-coup. The Obama administration has demurred, saying “it would not be wise to abruptly change our assistance program,” and vowed to take its time in deciding whether what happened legally mandates an aid cutoff, given the “significant consequences that go along with this determination.” 

For once, official Israel is wholeheartedly on Obama’s side. Senior Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down spent hours on the phone with their American counterparts this weekend to argue against an aid cutoff, and Israeli diplomats in Washington have been ordered to make this case to Congress as well. Israel’s reasoning is simple: An aid cutoff will make the volatile situation on its southern border even worse–and that is bad not only for Israel, but for one of America’s major interests in the region: upholding the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

To understand why, it’s important to realize that most Egyptians view the U.S. aid as “a kind of payment” for keeping the peace. Though the aid isn’t part of the treaty, it began immediately after the treaty was signed, and for 34 years, the only condition on its continuance has been continuation of the treaty. Thus Israel fears that ending the aid would erode Egyptian support for the treaty–and especially that of the army, which would be the main victim of the cutoff. Since the army is not only Egypt’s de facto ruler, but also the treaty’s main supporter in a country where most people would rather scrap it, that would clearly be undesirable.           

What makes it downright dangerous, however, is the situation in Sinai. The army recently beefed up its forces in Sinai in an effort to suppress Islamist terror there, a move Israel obviously welcomed. Nevertheless, Sinai is low priority for the military compared to cities like Cairo and Alexandria. Thus given the perceived linkage between the aid and the treaty, an aid cutoff would likely make the army feel perfectly justified in removing those troops and ceasing its efforts to uphold its main treaty obligation: keeping peace along the border. And having already halted the aid, Washington would have no leverage to prevent this.

That would almost certainly lead to increased terror along Israel’s border. But the real danger, as I’ve explained before, is that cross-border attacks could easily spark an Israeli-Egyptian war that nobody wants–including the U.S. Since the Israeli army will naturally try to stop such attacks, there’s always a risk of Egyptians being accidentally killed in the cross-fire, which in turn would spur angry mobs in Egypt to demand revenge–exactly as happened in August 2011. That attack was an isolated incident, so sanity prevailed. But the more cross-border attacks there are, the more likely it is that one will inadvertently trigger a war.

This is especially true because, as Lee Smith argued last week, a war against Israel would be the one sure way to unite a dangerously divided Egyptian nation: The only thing most Egyptians agree on is that Israel is an “enemy” and a “threat.”           

Continuing the aid is thus a small price to pay for preventing another Mideast war. And that’s something all Americans should be able to understand.

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Obama’s Claims Nothing But Dust in Wind

According to news reports, more than 50 people were killed on Monday when demonstrators enraged by the military overthrow of Egypt’s elected Islamist president clashed with Egyptian forces. It was the deadliest incident since Mohamed Morsi’s removal. In addition to the dead, hundreds of Egyptians were wounded.

So Egypt, the most important Arab nation in the world, is in turmoil. President Obama, meanwhile, has succeeded in alienating virtually every faction (both the pro- and anti-Morsi elements within Egypt feel betrayed by the United States). Having the Egyptian military depose from power the Muslim Brotherhood might have been the best of some very bad options. But it isn’t optimal by any means. The effect of the coup may well be to destabilize Egypt for years, it might further radicalize the Brotherhood, and a more fundamentalist Islamist faction within Egypt, the Salafist/Al Nour party, is emerging as political kingmakers.

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According to news reports, more than 50 people were killed on Monday when demonstrators enraged by the military overthrow of Egypt’s elected Islamist president clashed with Egyptian forces. It was the deadliest incident since Mohamed Morsi’s removal. In addition to the dead, hundreds of Egyptians were wounded.

So Egypt, the most important Arab nation in the world, is in turmoil. President Obama, meanwhile, has succeeded in alienating virtually every faction (both the pro- and anti-Morsi elements within Egypt feel betrayed by the United States). Having the Egyptian military depose from power the Muslim Brotherhood might have been the best of some very bad options. But it isn’t optimal by any means. The effect of the coup may well be to destabilize Egypt for years, it might further radicalize the Brotherhood, and a more fundamentalist Islamist faction within Egypt, the Salafist/Al Nour party, is emerging as political kingmakers.

But the turmoil in Egypt shouldn’t obscure the disaster that is unfolding in Syria, where a brutal civil war has killed upwards of 100,000 people, displaced millions more, and is destabilizing traditional American allies like Jordan, strengthening both Iran and Hezbollah and allowing Russia to establish a greater presence in the Middle East. And Syria, in turn, should not distract us from the rising authoritarian rule and Islamist tendencies of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, the further destabilization of nuclear-armed Pakistan, the increasing violence and instability in Iraq, the worrisome developments in Afghanistan, and the uncertainty surrounding the future of Libya, to name just a few other world hotspots.

There are many different ways to measure the multiplying failures of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but one good place to start is to read the president’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, where he pledged a “new beginning” between America and the Arab/Islamic world. It’s very instructive (and depressing) to be reminded of what Mr. Obama promised versus what has unfolded on his watch.

A second place to go is to Vali Nasr’s book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. Nasr, who is now dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, served in the Obama administration for two years. His book lays out a highly critical case against the president’s foreign policy–including why Obama’s purposeful retreat from the Middle East has been a grave error that has, among other things, given the strategic advantage to China. In Nasr’s words:

America – dragged by Europeans into ending butchery in Libya, abandoning Afghanistan to an uncertain future, resisting a leadership role in ending the massacre of civilians in Syria, and then rolling back its commitments to the region to “pivot” to Asia – hardly looks indispensable.

In the cocoon of our public debate Obama gets high marks on foreign policy. That is because his policies’ principal aim is not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion – he has done more of the things that people want and fewer o f the things we have to do that may be unpopular. To our allies, however, our constant tactical maneuvers don’t add up to a coherent strategy or a vision of global leadership. Gone is the exuberant American desire to lead the world. In its place there is the image of a superpower tired of the world and in retreat, most visibility from the one area of the world where it has been most intensely engaged. That impression serves neither America’s long-run interest nor stability around the world.

But even if you grant all that, there is something more that needs to be said–something that everyone who serves in high positions in the federal government, and especially in the White House, eventually learns. It is that governing is more difficult than giving speeches; that the world is complicated and untidy; and that often events are simply beyond the capacity of America to shape.

Before he became president, Barack Obama spoke as if the powers of the office, at least with him at the helm, would be nearly limitless. He would halt the rise of the oceans and remake the world. All the problems that existed were the responsibility of his predecessor. If Obama were elected, nations would bend to his will and leaders would bend to his ways. He was, we were assured, a world-historical figure, a once-in-a-generation leader, even a Lincoln-like one. 

It turns out Mr. Obama’s claims were nothing more than dust in the wind. He has been humbled by events and is now at the mercy of them. Some of this is certainly due to his own ineptness; some of it is also due to forces beyond his control. A more self-aware individual would have been wiser about all this before he took office. But now he knows his limitations. And so do we.

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The Muslim Brotherhood Is Not the Victim

The shootings in Cairo this morning that took the lives of what is reported to be more than 50 supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood movement have shocked the world and will, no doubt, influence the debate about where the United States should come down on the coup carried out last week by the army. The Brotherhood has claimed that the victims of the shooting were merely peaceful protesters, while the army has asserted that soldiers were attacked with rocks and perhaps even gunfire by masked protesters before the lethal barrage that killed dozens. But the incident may well prove to be a crucial turning point in the discussion here about Egypt and whether the U.S. should support Morsi’s ouster. Whatever it was that led to the killings, if it should help to reinforce the narrative theme that the Brotherhood and even Morsi are the innocent victims of a brutal army determined to repress dissent, then it may influence the Obama administration’s decision making process as to whether to continue American aid to Egypt or to withdraw it in order to push for a return to “democratic” rule.

But it would be a terrible mistake if Washington policymakers allowed today’s event to endorse the idea that what is at stake in Egypt now is democracy or that the Brotherhood is a collection of innocent victims. Even if we concede that the killings are a crime that should be investigated and punished, the conflict there is not about the right of peaceful dissent or even the rule of law, as the Brotherhood’s apologists continue to insist. While our Max Boot is right to worry that the army’s behavior may signal an incapacity to run the country that could lead to a collapse that would benefit extremists, I think the more imminent danger is that American pressure on the new government could undermine its ability to assert control over the situation and lead the Brotherhood and other Islamists to think they can return to power.

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The shootings in Cairo this morning that took the lives of what is reported to be more than 50 supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood movement have shocked the world and will, no doubt, influence the debate about where the United States should come down on the coup carried out last week by the army. The Brotherhood has claimed that the victims of the shooting were merely peaceful protesters, while the army has asserted that soldiers were attacked with rocks and perhaps even gunfire by masked protesters before the lethal barrage that killed dozens. But the incident may well prove to be a crucial turning point in the discussion here about Egypt and whether the U.S. should support Morsi’s ouster. Whatever it was that led to the killings, if it should help to reinforce the narrative theme that the Brotherhood and even Morsi are the innocent victims of a brutal army determined to repress dissent, then it may influence the Obama administration’s decision making process as to whether to continue American aid to Egypt or to withdraw it in order to push for a return to “democratic” rule.

But it would be a terrible mistake if Washington policymakers allowed today’s event to endorse the idea that what is at stake in Egypt now is democracy or that the Brotherhood is a collection of innocent victims. Even if we concede that the killings are a crime that should be investigated and punished, the conflict there is not about the right of peaceful dissent or even the rule of law, as the Brotherhood’s apologists continue to insist. While our Max Boot is right to worry that the army’s behavior may signal an incapacity to run the country that could lead to a collapse that would benefit extremists, I think the more imminent danger is that American pressure on the new government could undermine its ability to assert control over the situation and lead the Brotherhood and other Islamists to think they can return to power.

Despite evidence of provocation and even violence on the part of the Brotherhood demonstrators, it is unlikely that the army will be able to avoid being labeled as murderers by the international press. Indeed, if the Egyptian generals have any doubt about that they should ask their colleagues in Israel who have been similarly branded as killers even though the Israel Defense Forces have never done anything remotely as irresponsible as what happened today in Cairo.

But however deplorable today’s violence might be, that should not serve as an excuse for media coverage or policies that are rooted in the idea that the Brotherhood is a peaceful movement or that it’s goal is democracy. The whole point of the massive protests that shook Egypt last week and forced the military to intervene to prevent civil war was that the Brotherhood government was well on its way to establishing itself as an unchallengeable authoritarian regime that could impose Islamist law on the country with impunity. The Brotherhood may have used the tactics of democracy in winning elections in which they used their superior organizational structure to trounce opponents, but, as with other dictatorial movements, these were merely tactics employed to promote an anti-democratic aim.

Stopping the Brotherhood from achieving their goals should have been priority for the U.S. in its approach to Egypt, but instead the administration allowed itself to be depicted as the Brotherhood’s loyal supporter even if the truth was a bit more complicated than that. The president’s continued waffling in the days since the coup has only added to the suspicion that he was far more comfortable with Morsi than he is with those who prevented him from establishing an Islamist rather than a purely authoritarian dictatorship like that of Hosni Mubarak.

The shootings may also gain traction for those, like Senator John McCain, who wish to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt in the wake of the coup. Though it is possible that a U.S. government that does not blush about falsely characterizing foreign regimes when it suits Obama’s policy predilections would be able to stick to the “it’s not a coup” excuse for continuing aid, the violence could be just the lever critics of aid to Egypt are looking for.

But such a cutoff or threats to that effect would be a terrible mistake.

Any American action at this crucial moment that would convey the impression that the United States thinks a reversal of the coup or even a new Brotherhood government is a desirable outcome could have a devastating impact on the conflict there. Fortunately, the first reactions out of the White House now indicate that it won’t cut off aid. Let’s hope they stick to this resolution if Brotherhood apologists step up the pressure. Should the army falter in its resolve to ensure that a Morsi/Brotherhood dictatorship should be stopped in its tracks, it could encourage more violence and possibly help the Brotherhood gain support for an armed revolt.

Despite the idealistic posture that America should push at all costs for a swift return to democratic rule in Egypt, it needs to be remembered that genuine democracy is not an option there right now. The only way for democracy to thrive is to create a consensus in favor of that form of government. So long as the Islamists of the Brotherhood and other groups that are even more extreme are major players in Egypt, that can’t happen. The Brotherhood remains the main threat to freedom in Egypt, not a victim. While we should encourage the military to eventually put a civilian government in place, America’s priority should be that of the Egyptian people: stopping the Brotherhood. Anything that undermines that struggle won’t help Egypt or the United States. 

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Egypt’s Coup and the Vietnam Precedent

By coincidence, even as the coup in Egypt has been unfolding, I have been reading about the coup which occurred in Saigon on November 1-2, 1963. The generals who ousted Ngo Dinh Diem were also widely cheered by the people of South Vietnam–and by the United States government which played a much more active role in encouraging that change of regime than (at least as far as we know) the one currently unfolding. But the South Vietnamese generals found it much easier to topple the old government than to create a new government in its place.

The coup was led by General Duong Van Minh–known to Americans as “Big Minh”–but he lasted only three months as president before being pushed aside by another general. South Vietnam was to be in for constant turmoil and instability that lasted right up to the North Vietnamese invasion in 1975 which ended the state’s existence. Indeed the political uncertainty which followed Diem’s demise–and that of his influential brother Ngo Dinh Nhu–made the Communists’ job of destabilizing the state much easier.

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By coincidence, even as the coup in Egypt has been unfolding, I have been reading about the coup which occurred in Saigon on November 1-2, 1963. The generals who ousted Ngo Dinh Diem were also widely cheered by the people of South Vietnam–and by the United States government which played a much more active role in encouraging that change of regime than (at least as far as we know) the one currently unfolding. But the South Vietnamese generals found it much easier to topple the old government than to create a new government in its place.

The coup was led by General Duong Van Minh–known to Americans as “Big Minh”–but he lasted only three months as president before being pushed aside by another general. South Vietnam was to be in for constant turmoil and instability that lasted right up to the North Vietnamese invasion in 1975 which ended the state’s existence. Indeed the political uncertainty which followed Diem’s demise–and that of his influential brother Ngo Dinh Nhu–made the Communists’ job of destabilizing the state much easier.

Is this an augury of what Egypt–which is under the threat not of a Communist but rather of a Salafist takeover–faces? It’s impossible to say, but the early signs are not promising. The generals won widespread backing for ousting the incompetent and unloved Mohamed Morsi. But their initial choice for prime minister, Mohamed ElBaradei, was withdrawn after objections from the Salafist Al Nour party. Al Nour, which was the second-largest vote getter after the Muslim Brotherhood, had initially backed the coup but now seems to have developed cold feet. Its leaders cited as the reason for withdrawing from the governing process the massacre carried out by troops who have killed more than 50 protesters backing a restoration of the Morsi regime.

This shocking violence–the worst such incident since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011–could be an anomaly or it could signal the start of more widespread fighting, even perhaps a civil war. The Muslim Brotherhood still retains mass support and it has an organizational structure that could easily go underground to wage its battle for power with bombs rather than ballots. The Salafists also have many armed extremists in their midst. This is, to put it mildly, a dangerous situation. The generals will have to show hitherto-unsuspected political wisdom in steering Egypt through the current crisis which occurs as the economy continues to tank and law and order continue to break down. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions–Ataturk comes to mind–few generals have proven very successful dictators: the skill sets needed to command troops are far different from those needed to play the political game.

That is why, however happy most Americans (including me) are to see Morsi ousted from power, the U.S. government needs to make clear it will not tolerate indefinite unconstitutional rule by the Egyptian military. The U.S. has limited leverage but the $1.5 billion in aid we provide annually does give us some influence, and we need to use it to press for return to civilian rule, the promulgation of a new constitution, and the holding of elections. Egypt is far too important a country to drift along as South Vietnam did in the 1960s after its own military coup.

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Media Help America Misunderstand Egypt

Americans are frequently accused of being clueless about the Middle East. But given the nonsense they’re fed by the so-called “serious” mainstream media, cluelessness is virtually inevitable.

Take, for instance, the explanation of last week’s Egyptian coup offered by a star columnist for one of America’s premier newspapers: According to the New York Times’s Roger Cohen, it was about the ousted government’s failure to satisfy the following cravings: “personal empowerment, a demand to join the modern world, and live in an open society under the rule of law rather than the rule of despotic whim.” And on what does he base this conclusion? He quotes exactly two people–the director of Human Rights Watch’s Cairo office and former International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei. In other words, two members of the same liberal elite to which Cohen belongs–but which is highly unrepresentative of most of the estimated 14 million demonstrators who thronged Egypt’s streets last Sunday.

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Americans are frequently accused of being clueless about the Middle East. But given the nonsense they’re fed by the so-called “serious” mainstream media, cluelessness is virtually inevitable.

Take, for instance, the explanation of last week’s Egyptian coup offered by a star columnist for one of America’s premier newspapers: According to the New York Times’s Roger Cohen, it was about the ousted government’s failure to satisfy the following cravings: “personal empowerment, a demand to join the modern world, and live in an open society under the rule of law rather than the rule of despotic whim.” And on what does he base this conclusion? He quotes exactly two people–the director of Human Rights Watch’s Cairo office and former International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei. In other words, two members of the same liberal elite to which Cohen belongs–but which is highly unrepresentative of most of the estimated 14 million demonstrators who thronged Egypt’s streets last Sunday.

Reporters who spoke to those demonstrators, like Haaretz’s anonymous (presumably for his/her own protection) correspondent in Cairo, got a very different picture. “There’s no construction in Egypt and no company is hiring workers,” complained an unemployed engineer. A small boat owner said he could no longer feed his children because the falloff in tourism had killed his livelihood, which was taking tourists on Nile cruises. A Cairo street vendor who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood last year said bluntly, “The city is dead. Dead. No work. No food.” As columnist David P. Goldman (aka Spengler) noted, “It is not that hard to get 14 million people into the streets if there is nothing to eat at home.”

This is not a minor misunderstanding. If you think last week’s revolution was primarily a revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood’s undemocratic behavior, then you’ll think the West’s main goal should be “supporting the Egyptian people in their aspirations to democracy and inclusive governance,” as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton put it last week–for instance, by helping them draft a new and improved constitution. But if you realize that the revolution was primarily about economic distress, then you’ll understand the West’s main goals should be arranging short-term aid and pushing long-term economic reforms needed to stabilize the economy–because without economic improvement, even the best constitution won’t prevent another coup next year. Desperate people can’t afford to wait for the next election to bring about policy changes.

I’ve written before about how journalists’ tendency to talk almost exclusively with their counterparts abroad–i.e. members of the liberal elite–leads to gross misunderstanding of the countries they’re ostensibly enlightening their readers about. And the inevitable outcome is bad policymaking: It’s not possible to craft intelligent policy based on erroneous information.

But since the mainstream media isn’t going to change, policymakers urgently need to develop their own sources of information rather than relying so heavily on the media to understand foreign countries. As COMMENTARY’s Michael Rubin has frequently argued, ordering diplomats to spend less time hobnobbing with the liberal elite and more time learning what everyone else thinks might be a good place to start.

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Can Egypt’s New Leaders Handle Ramadan?

Ramadan, the Islamic month in which observant Muslims fast and refrain from any drink from sunrise to sundown, begins tomorrow evening. The tempo of life changes during Ramadan. Those observing the holiday eat before dawn, and then sleep late into the morning. Many television stations broadcast serials—some of which have received attention in the West for their outright anti-Semitism—in the Arab equivalent of sweeps week. Tempers can flare toward the late afternoon when the strain of fasting takes its toll, and it’s always best to stay clear of the roads in the couple of hours before sundown and drivers who might in any other month appear aggressive can during Ramadan bring road rage to a new level as they rush to get home.

The new Egyptian authorities will have three challenges, with very little time to prepare.

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Ramadan, the Islamic month in which observant Muslims fast and refrain from any drink from sunrise to sundown, begins tomorrow evening. The tempo of life changes during Ramadan. Those observing the holiday eat before dawn, and then sleep late into the morning. Many television stations broadcast serials—some of which have received attention in the West for their outright anti-Semitism—in the Arab equivalent of sweeps week. Tempers can flare toward the late afternoon when the strain of fasting takes its toll, and it’s always best to stay clear of the roads in the couple of hours before sundown and drivers who might in any other month appear aggressive can during Ramadan bring road rage to a new level as they rush to get home.

The new Egyptian authorities will have three challenges, with very little time to prepare.

First, while they will likely face quiet mornings, people flood into the streets at night. The evening activities need not be political, but with so much tension remaining throughout the country, the Egyptian government will probably face some middle-of-the-night clashes.

Second, food becomes even more important during Ramadan than during the rest of the year. Even poor families will try to put on a better spread to entertain friends and families. Mosques also provide iftar (break-fast) meals. Distributing food is a challenge on the best of days, but if the new government falls short during Ramadan, they may hemorrhage good will far quicker than many outsiders expect.

Lastly, Ramadan can be a period of religiosity. Just as many Jews might only appear in synagogue during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and many Christians might only visit their church on Christmas and Easter, many Muslims who are less observant might be more likely to visit the mosque for communal prayers during the holy month. As the mosques have traditionally been the political center for both the Muslim Brotherhood and the broader Islamist political underground, Egyptian government hopes that the Muslim Brotherhood rage will dissipate quickly as the coup becomes a fait accompli are probably optimistic at best.

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Does Turkey Know What Backward Is?

It is no surprise that the Turkish ruling party—itself an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—castigated Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster as a sign of backwardness in Egypt, and AKP spokesman Hüseyin Çelik urged the Muslim Brotherhood supporters to reverse the coup through violence, if necessary. “I curse the dirty coup in Egypt. I hope the broad masses who brought Morsi to power will defend their votes, which mean democratic honor,” he tweeted.

Certainly what occurred was a coup, but it’s pretty farfetched to call Mohamed Morsi democratic. As Eric Trager explains in the Wall Street Journal:

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It is no surprise that the Turkish ruling party—itself an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—castigated Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster as a sign of backwardness in Egypt, and AKP spokesman Hüseyin Çelik urged the Muslim Brotherhood supporters to reverse the coup through violence, if necessary. “I curse the dirty coup in Egypt. I hope the broad masses who brought Morsi to power will defend their votes, which mean democratic honor,” he tweeted.

Certainly what occurred was a coup, but it’s pretty farfetched to call Mohamed Morsi democratic. As Eric Trager explains in the Wall Street Journal:

The turning point in Mr. Morsi’s presidency came on Nov. 22, when he asserted unchecked executive authority through a constitutional declaration and, weeks later, rammed an Islamist constitution through to ratification. When mass protests erupted in response, Mr. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues dispatched Brotherhood cadres to attack the protesters, and seven people were killed in the fighting.

It seems strange to have Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Hüseyin Çelik, or Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lecture on backwardness. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for the Turkish triumvirate to consider what backward really means:

What happened in Egypt was unfortunate, but sometimes such actions are a last resort when leaders dispense with the rule of law, forget their own accountability to the public, and believe they can undertake authoritarianism without consequence. When Egypt holds new elections, let us hope the process of democratization can continue. In the meantime, let us hope that the Turkish government recognizes that it is Turkey that has moved backward, away from the 21st century and headlong into the past.

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