Terms of Engagement

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.

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.

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 contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit." @jamestraub1

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