It’s time for Washington to cut Egypt loose.
- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
With blood in Egypt’s streets and a return to a state of emergency, it’s time for Washington to stop pretending. Its efforts to maintain its lines of communication with the Egyptian military, quietly mediate the crisis, and help lay the groundwork for some new, democratic political process have utterly failed. Egypt’s new military regime, and a sizable and vocal portion of the Egyptian population, have made it very clear that they just want the United States to leave it alone. For once, Washington should give them their wish. As long as Egypt remains on its current path, the Obama administration should suspend all aid, keep the embassy in Cairo closed, and refrain from treating the military regime as a legitimate government.
These steps won’t matter very much in the short term. Cairo has made it very clear that it doesn’t care what Washington thinks and the Gulf states will happily replace whatever cash stops flowing from U.S. coffers. Anti-American incitement will continue, along with the state of emergency, violence and polarization, the stripping away of the fig leaf of civilian government, and the disaster brewing in the Sinai. It won’t affect Secretary of State John Kerry’s Israel-Palestine peace talks and the Camp David accords will be fine, too; Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can’t manage his own streets, and it’s unlikely he wants to mess with Israel right now.
The hard truth is that the United States has no real influence to lose right now anyway, and immediate impact isn’t the point. Taking a (much belated) stand is the only way for the United States to regain any credibility — with Cairo, with the region, and with its own tattered democratic rhetoric.
It’s easy to understand Washington’s ambivalence in the immediate aftermath of the July 3 coup. Nobody ever had any illusions that the military seizing power, suspending the constitution, and imprisoning President Mohamed Morsy quacked, as John McCain rather regrettably put it, like a duck. At the same time, the seemingly robust public support for the coup, longstanding uneasiness about the Muslim Brotherhood, the appointment of well-regarded technocrats to high-level government positions, and strong Gulf Cooperation Coucil support for the new regime stayed the Obama administration’s hand. It seemed prudent to many in Washington to wait and see how things would play out, especially given the intense arguments of those defending what they considered popular revolution. It didn’t help that neither the United States nor other outside actors knew quite what they wanted. Few particularly wanted to go to the mat for the Muslim Brotherhood or a Morsy restoration, and Washington quickly understood that this was not in the cards. But they also didn’t want a return to military rule.
Washington’s ambivalent position on the "coup" question also had the tactical purpose of keeping lines of diplomatic communication with both the new government and the Muslim Brotherhood. Washington tried to use its remaining leverage to encourage restraint and to broker some sort of acceptable compromise. Its low public profile made good sense given the torrent of irrational anti-American incitement sweeping Egypt’s media. The Pentagon maintained constant quiet communications with General Sisi, but had little evident impact on his decisions.
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns spent nearly a week trying to bring the two sides together, including a very well-crafted effort backed by both the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to push imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat el-Shater towards compromise. These attempts at quiet diplomacy under extremely difficult conditions were worthwhile and well-intentioned at the time, even if undermined by conflicting signals from Kerry and self-appointed interlocuters such as Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham.
But those justifications hold less weight now after the failure of mediation, the assault on the Brotherhood’s sit-in, and the declaration of a state of emergency.
These efforts to broker a political deal were never likely to succeed at a time when local forces are fighting what they see as an existential battle for political survival. Neither the military nor the Brotherhood wanted a deal — and no outside actor had the enough cards to play to encourage either side to make one. But the diplomacy was still worth trying. Even if Washington could not force a deal, its mediation efforts seemed to offer some alternative to violence and something to which the dwindling band of moderates on both sides could cling.
At a minimum, Washington hoped that its role would help to restrain the new Egyptian government from actions which would cause major bloodshed or efforts to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood. Clearly, with corpses now piling up in Cairo’s streets, this half-hearted presence has failed, horribly.
U.S. policy towards Egypt over the last two and a half years tried to quietly support a transition to democracy. This was the correct strategic vision. It’s difficult to see any way to return to that path at this point, though. The bloody assault on the protester camps — after repeated American opposition to such a move — leaves President Obama little choice but to step away from the Egyptian regime. Washington should, and probably will, call for a return to an elected civilian government, a rapid end to the state of emergency, and restraint in the use of force. When that doesn’t happen, it needs to suspend aid and relations until Cairo begins to take it seriously.