The Obama administration’s indecision on the crisis in Egypt isn’t winning it many friends. While it is taking heat from figures on both the right and the left for not cutting all ties with the military government of Egypt, the same critics have failed to note that it is chipping away at the relationship in significant ways. Yesterday Washington announced that it is halting economic assistance to Cairo to show its distaste for the coup (which it dare not call a coup) and the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps as a prelude to cutting off the much larger amounts that go to the military. Given that Egypt’s economy needs help a lot more than its armed forces need the bright and shiny new weapons that it purchases from the United States, this doesn’t make a lot of sense if your goal is to do something to help the Egyptian people.
But even this halfway measure doesn’t go far enough for those who, as Michael Rubin noted earlier, are treating the attempt to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood as another Tiananmen Square. But since the president’s usual cheering section in the press is never comfortable saddling him with the blame for his “lead from behind” style of conducting foreign affairs, a good deal of the responsibility for America’s refusal to work harder for the restoration of the dictatorial government of Mohamed Morsi is falling on a familiar scapegoat: the State of Israel.
As this story in today’s New York Times makes clear, Israel’s efforts to advise both the United States and Europe about the choices available to them in Egypt is not meeting with universal approval. Though, as the paper noted, Israel’s government has wisely refrained from making any public statements about the chaos in Cairo, its effort to lobby the West against cutting the current Egyptian government loose is seen as hypocritical as well as self-interested. But while it may be true the military is a better partner for the Jewish state than the Brotherhood, the same can be said for the United States and the European Union. If, in fact, Israel really is waging a “desperate diplomatic battle” over Egypt, all it is doing is attempting to dispel the lingering illusions about the conflict in that country that could, if unchecked, do as much harm to U.S. concerns as to those of the Jewish state. Ironically, in contrast to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” myth that falsely claims supporters of Israel are the tail that wags the American dog in conflict with U.S. interests, in this case it is fairly obvious that it is the Israelis reminding Americans to think about what is best for the United States.
Part of the confusion about U.S. aid to Egypt stems from Americans forgetting why they started pouring billions of aid into Cairo’s coffers in the first place: as payment for Anwar Sadat abandoning his country’s alliance with the Soviet Union and making peace with Israel. Israel’s desire to keep this aid alive is seen as purely self-interested since it preserves the cold peace that was signed 34 years ago between the two countries. Israel benefits from the maintenance of the peace treaty. But so does the United States. That is why Congress has agreed to keep aid going to Egypt all of these years. The treaty is a pillar of regional stability that Islamists like the Brotherhood’s Hamas allies in Gaza seek to undermine. If the Brotherhood were to return to power, the Sinai, which became a hotbed for terror during their year in control of Cairo, could become the spark for new conflict that would undermine everything that Obama has said he is trying to achieve in the Middle East.
Nor should Israel be scapegoated for pointing out that the calls for “restoration” of Egyptian democracy are farcical. Many Americans are still in love with the idea that the Arab Spring could bring democracy to the Muslim world. There is more to democracy than simply holding an election that allows organized totalitarians like the Brotherhood, who actually oppose freedom, to take power that they will never peacefully relinquish. If Israeli diplomats and government officials are telling their Western counterparts that democracy is not currently an option in Egypt it is because they, and not Israel’s detractors, are in touch with reality.
Doing so does not undermine Israel’s status as a genuine democracy any more than it does that of the United States. The choice in Egypt is between the military and the Brotherhood. It is unfortunate that neither option offers any hope for democracy, which would, in theory, be the best thing for both the Egyptians and those who care about regional stability. But wishing this weren’t the case won’t change the facts on the ground.
Contrary to those like Senator Lindsey Graham who claim the coup will make Egypt a “failed state,” the Brotherhood’s façade of democracy won’t keep the country afloat. It is already a failed state in terms of its ability to help its people. The question now is whether it adds to that trouble by becoming an Islamist totalitarian state, a prospect that sent 14 million Egyptians and the military to the streets to fight the Brotherhood.
Israelis should be telling the Obama administration that it is madness to attack the military government in Egypt just at the moment when it is acting to ensure that Islamists will never be able to reverse the decision of Sadat (who was, it should be remembered, assassinated by the Brotherhood) to embrace the West. The violence in Cairo (as well as the Brotherhood attacks on churches throughout Egypt) is troubling. But turning away from that country in the hope that doing so will restore democracy will neither help Egyptians nor enhance American interests. If the Israelis are arguing against such a policy, then perhaps their allies should be listening.