Lost in the Desert

What does the Obama administration make of Egypt's Mohamed Morsy? Not much. But they've still got to figure out how to work with him.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In recent days, I've been talking to officials in the Obama administration about what they think they're doing in Egypt. Even as Obama hesitates to thrust the United States into the rolling cauldron that is Syria, critics accuse him of coddling a dictator in Cairo. Congressional Republicans like Marco Rubio accuse the administration of cutting a $250 million blank check to Mohammed Morsy's authoritarian, Islamist regime. Analysts with no axe to grind, like Michael Walid Hanna of the Century Foundation or Peter Juul of the Center for American Progress, make the more nuanced argument that the administration has rewarded Morsy for his compliance on American national security goals, just as his predecessors did with Hosni Mubarak.

Is that fair? Obama does, after all, deserve credit for openly accepting the Egyptian people's choice of an Islamist government after long years when Washington viewed any partnership with Islamists as beyond the pale. But it is also true that the administration has under-reacted as Morsy made himself immune from judicial oversight, rammed through an illiberal constitution, and showed contempt for his opponents. And while it's impossible to prove, Morsy may well have felt that this strategic silence gave him carte blanche to continue down his path of majoritarian autocracy. Obama has not wanted to rock Morsy's very fragile boat. One figure who left the administration after the first term conceded that "We are not raising our voice," and added, that "there hasn't been enough attention to supporting those who are on the other side."

Let's stipulate that Obama has erred on the side of caution with Egypt. That is his nature, after all, and it's a lot better than the alternative, which we tried with that Bush guy. Obama's overall pattern in the Arab Spring has been doing the right thing, but a little late. So what now? What do administration officials think about Morsy, and how do they believe that they can influence his behavior? The short answer is that they think that Morsy and his circle are in way over his heads, and worry much more about their incompetence than their intolerance. "This is a bunch of guys who have been in jail for 40 years," said one figure. "They don't know what they're doing, they're paranoid, and they're making a huge number of mistakes. But there's no alternative to pushing them forward on the democratic path." Morsy, in short, is the wrong man for the moment, but also the only man. He must be nudged; and he can be nudged.

In recent days, I’ve been talking to officials in the Obama administration about what they think they’re doing in Egypt. Even as Obama hesitates to thrust the United States into the rolling cauldron that is Syria, critics accuse him of coddling a dictator in Cairo. Congressional Republicans like Marco Rubio accuse the administration of cutting a $250 million blank check to Mohammed Morsy’s authoritarian, Islamist regime. Analysts with no axe to grind, like Michael Walid Hanna of the Century Foundation or Peter Juul of the Center for American Progress, make the more nuanced argument that the administration has rewarded Morsy for his compliance on American national security goals, just as his predecessors did with Hosni Mubarak.

Is that fair? Obama does, after all, deserve credit for openly accepting the Egyptian people’s choice of an Islamist government after long years when Washington viewed any partnership with Islamists as beyond the pale. But it is also true that the administration has under-reacted as Morsy made himself immune from judicial oversight, rammed through an illiberal constitution, and showed contempt for his opponents. And while it’s impossible to prove, Morsy may well have felt that this strategic silence gave him carte blanche to continue down his path of majoritarian autocracy. Obama has not wanted to rock Morsy’s very fragile boat. One figure who left the administration after the first term conceded that "We are not raising our voice," and added, that "there hasn’t been enough attention to supporting those who are on the other side."

Let’s stipulate that Obama has erred on the side of caution with Egypt. That is his nature, after all, and it’s a lot better than the alternative, which we tried with that Bush guy. Obama’s overall pattern in the Arab Spring has been doing the right thing, but a little late. So what now? What do administration officials think about Morsy, and how do they believe that they can influence his behavior? The short answer is that they think that Morsy and his circle are in way over his heads, and worry much more about their incompetence than their intolerance. "This is a bunch of guys who have been in jail for 40 years," said one figure. "They don’t know what they’re doing, they’re paranoid, and they’re making a huge number of mistakes. But there’s no alternative to pushing them forward on the democratic path." Morsy, in short, is the wrong man for the moment, but also the only man. He must be nudged; and he can be nudged.

The administration’s view of the opposition is like almost everyone’s view of the opposition — it’s feckless, lazy, and disorganized, happier sulking in Cairo than campaigning in the countryside. When Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo last week, he spoke to leading figures, including Mohammed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, and urged them not to boycott the upcoming parliamentary election, as they are currently planning to do. Morsy’s plummeting popularity should allow his opponents to make serious gains — though many of those gains may go to Salafists rather than secularists. The only good news here is that the elections now seem likely to be postponed for three to four months, which would give the opposition time to reconsider a very bad decision.

Finally, the Obama administration seems to feel more comfortable with the Egyptian army than with any other current institution. After all, the reasoning goes, the army deposed Mubarak and delivered power to an elected leader, whom it has since helped sustain. "They have been resolute in working with the Israelis, they work well on the border," says the official mentioned above. The administration has no interest in seeking to either cut or seriously reprogram military assistance, as many critics have suggested — and Kerry said nothing about it in Cairo.

Obama, in short, is less worried about authoritarian regression than he is about Egypt falling apart. Egypt’s treasury has only three months of foreign exchange left, with no more money coming from Qatar or elsewhere. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is offering a $4.8 billion loan, which is Cairo’s only chance to stave off bankruptcy. And other institutions which might supply additional financing, including the World Bank and the Africa Development Bank, will not act until Egypt signs an accord with the IMF. The IMF, however, is demanding that Egypt make some reforms which are politically excruciating — above all, cutting subsidies which keep down the price of energy and food. Morsy’s answer is that Washington should tell the IMF to just give Egypt money.

The fear in Washington is thus that Egypt’s hapless leadership is sending the country over a cliff. The nightmare scenario is of an Egypt unable to pay its bills, which would send half of Cairo flooding into Tahrir Square. The military might even feel it had to take control once again. That’s today’s problem. In Cairo, Kerry publicly harped on the need to reach agreement on the loan, and in private admonished (or perhaps the word is browbeat) Morsy to make the tough political choices, and to begin working with the opposition. And Kerry offered incentives: a $250 million down payment on the $1 billion which Obama has promised to make available, as well as an additional $300 million once Morsy signed a deal with the IMF.

So the overall toolbox is this: modest financial incentives, private exhortations with public encouragement, and no punitive measures. Is that really a sufficient response to a crisis of this magnitude afflicting the historic heartland of the Arab world? The first and most obvious thing that needs to be said is that it’s way better than what Republican foreign policy geniuses like Marco Rubio have in mind, since withholding economic assistance until Egypt makes the political changes he wants will virtually ensure the kind of calamity which will make political compromise the least of Egypt’s worries. And given Morsy’s haplessness — but also the likely backlash against public criticism from the United States — private admonitions may be more effective right now than public opprobrium.

The big problem is money. In his recent book, Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr points out that the United States offered large-scale assistance when democratic waves washed over Latin America and Eastern Europe, but has offered only trifling aid in the Arab world, and above all in Egypt. That’s true; even Obama’s promised $1 billion consists heavily of loan guarantees. And while Libya and even Tunisia will not need massive financial help, Egypt will. The administration has begun working on a multinational plan to leverage private investment in the democratizing Arab states — another incentive for Morsy to sign a deal with the IMF. But there are no more Marshall Plans in the offing. The cupboard is bare.

On balance, I’m mostly with my colleague Marc Lynch, who argues that Obama has pretty much done what he can in Egypt. But that very fact brings home the limits of the possible. The fragile Arab democracies and would-be democracies need help more desperately than Poland or Hungary did; but they are also harder to help. There is not a lot the administration can do to make Egypt’s political opposition engage in democratic politics, and there is not a lot it can do to make Morsy realize that winning a parliamentary majority does not authorize you to run roughshod over your opponents. Those are insights only gained through painful experience. And yes, the United States simply doesn’t have the scratch any more. Financing is not something Washington leverages; it furnishes. In that regard, those who say the United States is weaker than it used to be are right.

Nasr argues that Washington has given up on the Arab world — in fact, pretty much on the whole world. I think it’s fairer to say that Obama can’t do a good deal that he might like to do, and that he’s quite prepared to rationalize that with the proposition that the Arab world must be allowed to work out its destiny on its own. Is that cynicism? Maybe a little. Mostly, I’d say, it’s just reality.   

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.