Once again the future of Egypt hangs in the balance. The ultimatum delivered yesterday to the Muslim Brotherhood government by the Egyptian military puts President Mohamed Morsi on notice that it will not tolerate repression of the protesters who have turned out in unprecedented numbers this week to demonstrate against the Islamist movement’s push to seize total power. Should Morsi agree to early elections, that might avert a confrontation. But given his determination to press on with his Islamist project and with a massive following of his own that could be unleashed on the streets, it’s not clear whether the president will try to call the army’s bluff or back down. No foreign power, even one with the leverage that the billions in annual aid to Egypt gives the United States, can solely determine the outcome of this standoff. But anything President Obama does or says at this crucial moment can have a disproportionate impact on what will happen. Thus, the news that President Obama is trying to play both ends against the middle in Egypt is a discouraging sign that once again the administration doesn’t understand the stakes involved in this struggle and where U.S. interests lie.
As CNN reports, the United States is sending out mixed messages to the competing factions. On the one hand, reportedly the president told Morsi that he should agree to new elections, a sign that finally the administration is stepping away from its embrace of the Brotherhood government. On the other hand, it has apparently also warned the military that the U.S. will not tolerate a move to unseat Morsi or to impose its own “road map” to a new government, as the army has warned it will do should the Egyptian president allow the 48-hour ultimatum to expire without agreeing to respect the demands of the protesters.
While it is clear the U.S. is in a difficult position, Obama’s attempt to thread the needle in Cairo may well wind up leaving America with the worst of both worlds. As it did in 2011 when its equivocal response to the Arab Spring protests helped dump Mubarak while at the same time alienating the Egyptian people, the administration has not made clear its priorities. After a year in which the actions of both Washington and Ambassador Anne Patterson have left the impression that President Obama is firmly committed to supporting Morsi, the threat of an aid cutoff if the military acts to curb the Brotherhood may have far more resonance that its sotto voce whispers about new elections. The result is that by refusing to fully support the military’s efforts to prevent Morsi from consolidating power, the United States may be missing another opportunity to prevent Egypt from slipping irrevocably into Islamist tyranny.
From the start of the Arab Spring protests, President Obama has sought to portray himself as a supporter of those who wanted to overthrow authoritarian dictatorships in the Muslim world. This is a laudable impulse, but the practical effect of this policy has been to lend the legitimacy of U.S. backing to Islamist movements like the Brotherhood who used their superior organization to win the elections that followed Mubarak’s fall. Elections are important. But when voting takes place in the absence of a consensus in favor of democratic principles, it is often a poor barometer of genuine progress toward freedom. Like the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, the Brotherhood’s triumph at the ballot box wasn’t an indication that Egypt was on its way to democracy. As Morsi has proven over the course of the last year, it was merely a way station toward the Brotherhood’s plans to remake the country in its own image, something that horrified many moderate Muslims as well as secular and Christian Egyptians.
It should also have shocked an Obama administration that used its considerable influence over the Egyptian military to force them to stand aside and let Morsi and the Brotherhood take over the government last year. But now that the people have risen in numbers that dwarf the considerable protests that helped oust Mubarak, it is time for the United States to make it clear that what it wants is an end to the brief and unhappy experiment of Brotherhood rule.
President Obama has shown himself to be reluctant to throw America’s weight around when it comes to defending U.S. interests as opposed to those causes that can be portrayed as a gesture toward universal principles. Thus, he seems averse to anything that can be seen as repressing the will of the Egyptian people. But after a year of the Brotherhood’s efforts to undermine any checks and balances on its power, the demonstrators realize something that perhaps has eluded the president and his inner circle: this is probably Egypt’s last chance to oust Morsi before he completes the process of consolidating his power.
If the U.S. forces the Egyptian military to back down as it did last year, then it is highly unlikely that Morsi and the Brotherhood will ever be successfully challenged. Without the military behind them, the anti-Morsi protests could be repressed. More elections may follow, but if the Brotherhood is allowed to complete its conquest of the bureaucracy, the media and the military, then it is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to unseat them.
Much as he would like to avoid picking sides, the time is fast approaching when Obama must choose between his strange willingness to make common cause with the Brotherhood and its Turkish ally, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the need to help those who wish to prevent Egypt from sinking into an Islamist nightmare. In this case, ambivalence and nuance is not, as the administration seems to think, the same thing as effective strategy or a defense of U.S. interests. As Egypt heads toward the precipice, President Obama must make it clear that America will back those who seek to prevent a Brotherhood dictatorship. If he doesn’t, both history and the Egyptian people may never forgive him.