Why does Washington still think it can control what happens in Egypt?
Here we go again. It has been barely a week since the Egyptian military removed Mohamed Morsy from power, and Washington is already knee-deep in the blame game over who’s responsible for the current mess and what America must do to fix it.
The question of "Who lost [insert country here]?" goes back at least to the communist takeover of China in 1949, when American conservatives accused Harry Truman’s administration of abandoning Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces. But the "Who lost" formulation has resurfaced with increasing frequency in the last few years — over Iraq, over Syria, and now over Egypt, as the United States struggles to adapt to the rapidly shifting political situation there.
Most fingers are pointing at Barack Obama’s administration. The U.S. president was either too soft on the Muslim Brotherhood and/or not tough enough on the generals. Indeed, right now we have an amen chorus urging a cutoff of assistance to Egypt until the generals turn into democrats or get out of the way and allow others to. No surprise here. Just another example of Obama’s abdication of American leadership and leading from behind, right? Or, if Obama is not a juicy-enough target, you can also fault the U.S. ambassador’s ill-timed remarks about the value of elections over street demonstrations, or Secretary of State John Kerry’s July 4 aquatic adventures in Nantucket.
Some of this is just U.S. domestic politics. But much has to do with the belief that more American leadership is always better than less and the U.S. need to seek clear solutions in situations where, more often than not, only confused outcomes are available.
The primary reason for Egypt’s current travails has much more to do with the choices Egyptians have made and the circumstances those choices have created than the policies of the Obama administration, let alone any sins of omission and commission.
Ground Control to Major Tom: Egypt isn’t a democracy, and it’s not going to be anytime soon. The two most powerful forces in the country — the military and the Muslim Brotherhood — are the least democratic, and the liberal, secular, less radical Islamists are so far incapable of organizing politically, let alone running the country.
There’s little the United States could have done over the past 18 months that would have altered the basic narrative that has played out. Simply put, what’s happening in Egypt isn’t Obama’s fault. Nor can he fix it. And based on that judgment, the United States doesn’t need a fundamental reassessment and dramatic change in its Egypt policy.
Take the Egyptian military. Perhaps Obama believed too much in its capacity to orchestrate an effective transition to civilian rule. But the United States was already deeply locked into an investment trap with the generals from which it was almost impossible to escape. For decades, America funneled military and economic aid to an authoritarian Egypt in an effort to protect the peace treaty with Israel, keep Hosni Mubarak aligned with U.S. policy, fight terrorism, and protect the Suez Canal. And the Mubarak regime didn’t even pretend to function according to democratic rules. So how would the United States now rationalize cutting off aid to Egypt as it struggles to cope with a democratic transition? And can America afford to lose the leverage it has with Egypt’s military, right now the only relatively reliable actor on the Egyptian stage? That leverage, which flows from the U.S. military’s relationship with Egypt’s armed forces, is considerable to maintaining the generals’ prestige and weapons inventory. But it works both ways. America needs Egypt’s military and intelligence services too — for countering terrorism, keeping Egypt-Israel relations stable, and containing Iran.
As for the Muslim Brotherhood, regardless of whether the Obama administration was naive to believe that the responsibilities of governing might transform an inherently anti-democratic movement into something else, how could it walk away from a fair, free, and historic election that produced the first civilian president in Egypt’s history? Doing so would have put the administration in the untenable position of arguing for democracy only if the "right" party wins. And it’s hard to see what Washington could have done to change Morsy’s approach to the presidency once he took office. Joining the Brotherhood isn’t like joining a health club — it’s a way of life with an all-encompassing worldview.
The whole point of the Arab Awakening was that it decentralized politics — stripping it from autocrats so that a variety of actors could participate. In so doing, it legitimized them. And, however turbulent, politics in Egypt are now more credible than at any time since the early 20th century. Public opinion, smaller parties like the Salafi al-Nour Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood now matter. The last thing America should do is infantilize the Egyptians and others by pretending it knows what’s best and believing it can fix Egypt’s admittedly broken house. Only Egyptians can make those repairs.
Even if the United States had more sway over outcomes in Egypt than it actually does, neatly reconciling American values and interests would be nearly impossible. Egyptians — the elite and the broader public — can’t reconcile their own conflicting ideologies with the need for effective governance, basic security, and prosperity. Why does America think it can? Besides, at the moment, Egypt lacks the three basic elements around which democratic polities are built: leaders who prioritize national interests above sectarian interests; legitimate, accountable, and authoritative institutions; and a mechanism for resolving disputes without violence.
The fact is that U.S. interests — on terrorism, Israel, Iran, and the like — require a close relationship with the generals. And though standing up for democracy is one of America’s interests, there is very little it can do now to force the Egyptians to produce one. The last thing the United States needs is to try to force a transition to civilian rule that’s again botched and mismanaged. And how serious about democratization is America really? In a real democracy, the military doesn’t trump civilian authority, make all national security decisions, and run its own economy with an offline budget. Yet the Egyptian military does all three.
Right now, we don’t need a major reassessment of U.S. policy toward Egypt or a lot of drama involving threats to cut off aid. And we don’t need to turn the Egyptian story into some kind of morality play that pits the forces of darkness (the Islamists) against the forces of light (the military and public). U.S. policy toward Egypt isn’t constrained by lack of courage or imagination. It’s limited by Egyptian realities and American interests.
The United States needs to pay more attention to those realities, identify a set of principles of democratic governance, and articulate them clearly and consistently, both publicly and privately at the highest levels. Hold the generals to those standards, but give the process time to congeal — and if it doesn’t and the military is the primary reason, then ratchet up the pressure. But beating up the Obama administration (or ourselves) for that matter, believing that Egypt was Washington’s to lose or that America is a central actor in Egypt’s internal drama, won’t get us anywhere.
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