Egypt has had quite a wild ride since the Tahrir Square protests ousted longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Ever since, the carousel of Egyptian politics has gyrated wildly, but it seems it was spinning in a circle the whole time. Far from seeing the inauguration of a new democracy, we appear to be witnessing the transition from rule by one former general to collective rule by a bunch of active-duty generals. Egypt seems to be moving in the direction of pre-reform Burma–even the names of the two ruling juntas are remarkably similar and sinister: SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) in Egypt; SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) in Burma.
In both cases, the generals are claiming to save the people from the messy untidiness of democracy. In Egypt, that case has been somewhat strengthened by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood and hard-line Salafists won the vast majority of parliamentary seats and that a Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won this weekend’s presidential election. Even before the presidential results had been announced, the SCAF had dissolved parliament and instituted decrees that limit the new president’s power to largely ceremonial functions. All that remains to be seen is how the Brotherhood–the largest and most powerful non-governmental organization in Egypt–will react. Will the generals’ actions be quietly accepted, as they were in Turkey in 1980, or will they spark a bloody civil war, as they did in Algeria in 1992? Regardless, it is a tragedy that the will of the Egyptian people, who plainly long for Western-style democracy and not an Iranian-style theocracy or a sclerotic police state, is being thwarted.
I do not envy President Obama having to figure out how to respond. The American interest in democracy appears, in this case, to be at odds with our strategic interest, which is working with the Egyptian military, as we have since the 1970s, rather than trying to deal with the anti-Western, anti-Israel Brotherhood. The U.S. has considerable leverage over the process, thanks to the $1.3 billion in military aid that we provide to Egypt every year. How the U.S. uses that leverage can help to shape the outcome.
Tempting as it is for the U.S. to acquiesce in the military’s latest power grab, it is a mistake. The military is either ushering in the day of reckoning (if civil war breaks out) or delaying it (if it doesn’t). Either way, Egypt’s long-term prospects are not served by this decision, because it will allow the Brotherhood to claim the cloak of martyrdom. The best bet in the long run for weakening Brotherhood authority would be to allow it to rule. Already, the Brotherhood’s appeal seems to have declined since the parliamentary elections which ended in January. Undoubtedly, if the Brotherhood were granted full authority over Egypt’s dysfunctional state and anemic economy, its popularity would decline some more–unless it were able to moderate its wilder instincts and deliver real results. By keeping the Brotherhood out of power, the SCAF is taking upon itself all the blame for Egypt’s dire condition–not a wise long-term bet.
The U.S. will share that popular opprobrium if it appears to connive in this military coup. Obama would be better advised to tell the generals, in no uncertain terms, that they need to take a step back from the political arena. The military should still have a role to play but only as a guarantor of the election process. As long as a Brotherhood government must face voters in the future, popular sentiment will act as a check on its illiberal tendencies. The days of military rule have long passed in Egypt. The military just doesn’t know it yet.