Leading from Nowhere

Leading from Nowhere

The ironies of the U.S. response to the situation in Egypt would be pretty entertaining if realities on the ground weren’t quite so disturbing.

A year ago, who, other than those in the fever swamps of the Tea Party, would have thought that Egyptian street protesters would topple their first democratically elected president while accusing Barack Obama’s administration of being too close to the Muslim Brotherhood? Who would have thought that on the Fourth of July, commentators across America would celebrate a military coup in Egypt as being synonymous with the actions of Washington’s Founding Fathers? Who would have thought that the Wall Street Journal would suggest with a straight face that the real model for the Egyptian military should be the murderous regime of Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet?

Who would have thought that so many people could go to such lengths to describe the Egyptian military deposing a sitting president while deploying tanks in the street as something other than a coup? Who would have thought that David Brooks would respond to the fact that Egyptians have twice taken to the streets in waves of massive pro-democracy protests over the last two years as a sign that they "lack even the basic mental ingredients" for a democratic transition?

Egypt’s interim government just took an important step in naming moderate economist Hazem el-Beblawi as prime minister and by setting a very brisk six-month timeline for elections, rewriting the Egyptian Constitution, and returning the country to civilian rule. From the body language, it seems pretty clear that the Egyptian military really doesn’t want to be in the driver’s seat for all this, but felt it had little choice but to act. That said, with the blood literally still on the streets from the killing of more than 50 Islamist protesters this week, it is equally clear that the choices for the Obama administration going forward are going to remain unpalatable.

The administration seems to largely agree with the Egyptian military and most of the street protesters that Mohamed Morsy had to go, but obviously cringed at the idea of a democratically elected president being deposed at gunpoint. President Obama said he was "deeply concerned" by the military’s decision to seize power, but came well short of condemning the move.

Similarly, the administration thinks that cutting off aid to Egypt doesn’t make much sense, even though U.S. law requires it in the case of military coups. (Pity White House spokesman Jay Carney being left to make the case that it is too early to tell whether it is a coup.)

Obama deserves credit for not publicly hyperventilating about the situation. Having the White House and State Department appear a bit distant is not the worst thing when dealing with a country that justifiably harbors pent-up resentment regarding a long history of U.S. meddling (and, yes, even billions of dollars in aid). Having Washington publicly take sides in a fluid, messy upheaval will not serve either capital well at this point.

But the choices will keep getting harder. Even if the administration wanted to, steering a democratic transition from afar is incredibly difficult. At the end of the day, there is no real substitute for a genuine Egyptian leadership that can cobble together a functioning coalition of parties and individuals willing to work together in the national interest. That is why Morsy’s short tenure will ultimately be seen as such a tragically lost opportunity.

Washington wants the Egyptians to move quickly to re-establish functioning democracy, but speed is not always helpful when it comes to shaping a constitution that is genuinely inclusive or getting buy-in from moderate Islamist parties outraged by the killing of their supporters. Getting the Muslim Brotherhood back on board in a productive way will not happen overnight.

Egypt is in the middle of a historic, painful, difficult, and long-overdue political transition. All the parties involved need to allow time to reach some basic consensus. Indeed, the current situation in Afghanistan might have looked very different today if George W. Bush’s administration had allowed time for a genuine national dialogue and reconciliation to take place rather than simply ramrodding through rapid elections and the anointment of President Hamid Karzai.

In many ways, this is going to be the hardest lesson for Washington to learn. Having treated the Middle East as the lone regional exception to its democracy-promotion efforts for decades, policymakers in Washington decided after the 9/11 attacks that democracy should be on the fast track in the Middle East — or, that is to say, that it should be on a fast track where it is strategically expedient. Yet, it is exactly because this democratic dialogue was deferred for so long that these conversations to build consensus on everything from the role of religion in politics to youth unemployment will have to be given real time, as messy and problematic as that might be.

Unfortunately, though the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, and others are now stepping up to pour in billions of dollars of aid, and Beblawi, the new prime minister, appears a credible economic thinker, the economic pressure will only continue to mount as negotiations take place. Both tourists and foreign investment are going to stay away from Egypt until the situation calms considerably, and Egyptian leaders, regional allies, and the Obama administration will need to work quietly behind the scenes to make sure the economic situation can at least show some glimmer of promise to those in the streets.

Secretary of State John Kerry came into office hoping to secure sweeping diplomatic deals in the Middle East — a worthy aspiration. But instead of grand diplomatic bargains, the hard work necessary to build a genuinely collective vision for Egypt’s future needs to happen in the coffeehouses and ministries, in the mosques and government offices. Anyone who has ever been to a city council meeting knows those meetings aren’t very sexy, but the hard truth is that you don’t have democracy without building blocks. Given that Obama began his career as a community organizer, one hopes that the administration will finally embrace an approach to Egypt shaped from the ground up.