Commentary Magazine


Is Now the Time to Punish Egypt?

An experts’ Working Group on Egypt comprised of serious and, indeed, quite distinguished foreign-policy practitioners have released an open letter to President Obama advising a tougher line toward Egypt’s provisional government. They write:

The idea that there will be a trade-off between democracy and stability in Egypt is false. A realistic assessment of what is happening in Egypt—a massive crackdown on members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, mounting repression of peaceful critics of the coup, societal polarization and troubling vigilante violence, persistent demonstrations, escalating militant attacks on police and military targets—shows that repressive, security-dominated rule will not produce long-, medium-, or even short-term stability. Especially since the events of 2011, the populace is more mobilized, more involved in politics, and more divided than ever. In these circumstances, pluralistic democratic institutions, and an opportunity for freedom of speech and assembly, will be necessary to allow citizens to struggle peacefully to resolve those divisions through compromise and democratic decision-making.

They also suggest that U.S. assistance be contingent on Egypt “end[ing] the broad security and media campaign against those who peacefully oppose the actions of the interim government and the military, releas[ing] the thousands of opposition group members, supporters, and activists now detained on questionable charges and with disregard for their due-process rights, and allow[ing] all citizens not implicated in violence to participate fully in political life,” as well as Egyptian authorities ending the use of live ammunition against protestors, a cessation of repression against peaceful dissidents, and the dropping of investigations into young activists, former parliamentarians, journalists, and academics, as well as an end to the media campaigns fanning the flames of anti-Americanism.

It’s hard to argue with some of the recommendations, although why such recommendations should be limited to Egypt is another question. After all, while Egyptian incitement against the United States is acute, this was also the case under Hosni Mubarak. It is a fact of life in the Palestinian Authority and in Turkey and in Jordan. Perhaps it is time simply to make state incitement a factor more broadly in U.S. aid, which should never be considered an entitlement.

There is a logical problem in calling for a cessation of investigations into activists—whether they are young or not should be beside the point—and then calling on full participation for citizens not implicated in violence. As U.S. authorities know from investigating terror in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not enough to catch the person carrying a bomb; it is far more important to uproot the network of the person who is carrying that explosive, and that requires extensive investigation.

In the run-up to the Iraq war and then during the time of the Coalition Provisional Authority, there was a constant debate—though many policymakers did not see it in such terms—between those who believed democracy in the process should trump democracy in the end result, versus those who prioritized democracy in the end result.

A superficial reading of events in Egypt gives great reason for sympathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood. After all, Mohamed Morsi won a democratic election but the Egyptian military ousted him before he could serve out his full term. The real situation is more complex: Morsi dispensed with democratic checks and balances shortly after taking power and, in November 2012, sought to place himself and his decrees above judicial review. Behind the scenes, the Brotherhood also worked to coordinate with terrorist groups like Hamas and, perhaps in the Sinai, even some al-Qaeda-affiliated groups which had taken root.

While the initial Tahrir Square protests had targeted first Egypt’s interior minister and, as the Mubarak regime bungled its response, ultimately Mubarak himself, Morsi’s dictatorial tendencies had antagonized the broad swatch of the Egyptian public to the point that when the military acted—after Morsi ignored their calls to compromise—they moved in.

Morsi is gone, and much of the Muslim Brotherhood is underground. They should be. In the year they wielded real power rather than simply the rhetorical power of opposition they demonstrated that they had lied not only to Western diplomats and journalists but also their own members. They had not evolved, either in ideology or structure, and so young Egyptians who had flocked to them seeking an alternative to the corrupt and dictatorial Mubarak discovered that their input was not welcome, and that they were expected only to listen and obey.

In addition, the Egyptian constitution that Morsi imposed—also in a less-than-democratic fashion by claiming he would not abandon autocratic powers until it passed—was noxious toward women, minorities, and others.

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi could prove to be as corrosive a figure toward democracy as was Morsi. It is unclear whether he is prepared to reverse the crony capitalism that was the hallmark of the Mubarak regime or whether he will cut deals with the army in exchange for their continued support. Rather than simply shout into the wind and try to turn back time, however, it would be far more productive to focus on the transition moving forward. It is not productive for the United States to focus its diplomatic pressure on restoring power to a movement like the Muslim Brotherhood that is as hostile to the United States as it is to democracy. Rather than restore American credibility in the region, the continued floundering support for the Muslim Brotherhood is antagonizing the few allies the United States has left in the region, from the United Arab Emirates to Morocco.

Democracy is important, and for too long successive administrations and almost everyone in the State Department treated it as a throwaway line rather than something to really prioritize. Rather than treat the provisional government and all that comes after it as illegitimate, U.S. pressure would be far better spent ensuring that elections are free and fair, not only on election day but in the campaign that precedes it. At the same time, it is long past time that the United States recognizes that there are two faces to the Muslim Brotherhood: That which it presents to diplomats and journalists, and that by which it operates. A choice between democracy in the process or democracy as a result may seem unfortunate to make, but reality intrudes. Faced with such a decision, democracy as the result should be the ultimate goal. It is unfortunate that the signatories of the Egypt Working Group letter seem not to think so.

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