The resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei as vice president of Egypt’s interim government and the declaration of a state of emergency in the wake of the violence in the streets of Cairo today will, no doubt, add to the pressure on President Obama to cut off aid to the Egyptian military. With hundreds dead and the pretense that the post-coup regime is anything but a rerun of Hosni Mubarak’s military dictatorship debunked, the impulse in Washington will be to express outrage and to say or do something to disassociate the United States from what has happened. After Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham went to Cairo last week and asked the military to avoid a conflict and to negotiate some sort of agreement that would bring the ousted Muslim Brotherhood back into the government, the decision of General al-Sisi to ignore their advice and unleash his troops will be regarded as reason enough to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt.
That is, to some extent, understandable. But it would be a terrible mistake for the administration to do anything that would worsen the burgeoning conflict in Egypt. The coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi as well as the police action in Cairo contradicts American principles as well as specific warnings issued by Washington. But it needs to be reiterated that democracy is not one of the choices available in Egypt. An Obama condemnation of the Egyptian military might make some Americans feel good. But far better would be a presidential acknowledgment that the Arab Spring is over and that the priority is not the resurrection of a fake democracy there but to prevent Islamists from ever getting another chance of imposing their extreme ideology on Egypt or the entire region.
As disturbing as the video coming out of Cairo today may be, it should be remembered that the victims of the military crackdown are not the peaceful democratic protesters that they are sometimes depicted as being. The Brotherhood is a totalitarian Islamist movement that would never have peacefully relinquished power if it had not been overthrown by the military. Though it embraced democracy as a tactic to attain power, it did not and does not believe in it. Its protest sites in Cairo were armed camps, befitting an organization that was always more of an Islamist militia than a political party.
That means that the calls issued by Americans for a peaceful resolution to the standoff were largely meaningless. Nothing short of a full-fledged military operation would have ever persuaded the Brotherhood to go home. Brutal though the attack on these encampments was, the notion that it could have been accomplished by more pacific methods is probably absurd.
The United States should always advocate for democracy and respect for human rights. But it needs to be understood that releasing Morsi or bringing the Brotherhood into a new government would not have advanced those goals. Egypt’s current leaders understand something that President Obama and his foreign policy advisors never have: the struggle in Egypt has always been a zero-sum game in which the choices are reduced to the military or the Brotherhood.
Now is the time for Washington to stay the course and to refuse to give in to the impulse to cut off Egypt. After more than a year of embracing the Brotherhood government of Morsi, it has been hard for Obama to realize that he made a mistake. But if he seeks to punish the Egyptian military for doing exactly what the majority of the Egyptian people want them to do, he will be compounding that error.