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.