Our Friend in Cairo
Why does President Barack Obama persist in supporting Mohamed Morsy -- and not the protesters?
On Sunday, June 30, millions of Egyptians turned out to protest President Mohamed Morsy and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime. Fed up with his disastrous economic mismanagement and systematic disregard for constitutional freedoms, the Egyptian people took to the streets to demand his resignation. "Leave! Leave!" they chanted in what may have been the largest demonstration in the history of the Middle East — if not the world.
It was a breathtaking scene — and potentially a watershed moment. Unlike the angry, disaffected youth who raged through the Arab Spring in 2011, these crowds, like those in the recent protests in Turkey, were made up of middle-class citizens protesting against a regime with an unpleasant tendency to trample on the rights of women, Christians, and Jews — and to stifle the independence of the press and judiciary, ruining the economy in the process. While there has been some unfortunate violence, the Tamarod ("Rebel") movement is also organizing demonstrations, gathering signatures of no confidence in Morsy’s government (it has gathered 22 million already), and threatening additional civil disobedience in the form of strikes if Morsy does not step down.
One would expect to find the United States standing firmly with these people. Surely, after our long and lonely search for secular and democratic partners in the Arab world, we could find some common ground with them. Surely, we could see the value of an administration in Egypt that could act as both a southern bulwark for Israel and a much-needed partner in countering the terrorist outposts in the Sinai and Horn of Africa. And surely, we could help support a government that could stand as an example for struggling states like Libya and Iran — one that proves Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East are not predestined to live in oppressive theocracies.
Tragically, America has been relegated to the sidelines. The number of U.S. Embassy personnel has been reduced, and a travel warning has been issued for Americans in Egypt — and for good reason. The people protesting in the streets were not only carrying anti-Morsy signs. They were also carrying signs with slogans like "Obama Supports Terrorism" and "Obama Supports Morsy," as well as pictures of the American ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, with a large red "X" through her face. Some of these were set on fire. On Friday, Andrew Driscoll Pochter, an American college student who was in Egypt to teach English to schoolchildren, was stabbed to death as he took pictures of the protesters.
In what has to be one of the most stunning diplomatic failures in recent memory, the United States is — in both perception and reality — entrenched as the partner of a repressive, Islamist regime and the enemy of the secular, pro-democracy opposition.
It did not have to be this way.
When Morsy was elected a little more than a year ago, President Barack Obama could have expressed strong reservations about a member of the Muslim Brotherhood taking control of the country. He should have also been more aggressive about using American aid to extract concessions from the Egyptian government on human rights, as well as economic and political reform. Instead, Obama made a personal call to congratulate Morsy, characterized his election as a "milestone" in Egypt’s progress toward democracy, and pledged $1 billion in U.S. taxpayer-funded aid. In the ensuing months, Morsy received a steady stream of assistance from the United States in the form of arms sales, unconditional financial aid, and visits from high-level officials such as Secretary of State John Kerry — all of which enhanced the strength and legitimacy of his regime.
Emboldened by U.S. support, Morsy consolidated his power — removing the traditionally pro-American military leadership, imposing an Islamist constitution, marginalizing the judiciary, and turning a blind eye to brutal attacks against religious minorities, including Coptic Christians and Shiite Muslims. Morsy also began to agitate for the release of the "blind sheik" Omar Abdel Rahman, who orchestrated the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Offensive remarks describing Jews as "bloodsuckers" and "the descendants of apes and pigs" soon came to light. Still, the United States continued to place its resources at his disposal — apparently on the grounds that a budding Islamist dictator with a healthy hatred of Israel and America was the appropriate recipient of Abrams tanks and B-16 bombers.
More recently, as opposition to Morsy coalesced around the Tamarod movement, the Obama administration missed the opportunity to support its efforts and further the vital interests of the United States without firing a shot. Instead, the sole priority seems to be to defuse the situation and preserve the status quo. Ambassador Patterson has assumed the leading role in implementing this policy, meeting with members of the opposition not to encourage them to pursue a true secular democracy in Egypt but to try to persuade them to tone things down. Patterson has said she is "deeply skeptical" of their movement.
Obama, traveling in Africa on the eve of the protests, offered no words of support. Instead, he admonished the demonstrators to remain peaceful and made the tepid recommendation that Morsy engage in a "constructive conversation" about reform, since the president of the United States could not take a side in this debate.
The president’s comments fall into an all-too-familiar pattern. We are witnessing a moment of real opportunity for reform in Egypt right now, just as we witnessed hopeful moments in Iran in 2009 and Syria in early 2011. In both cases, meaningful change might have been encouraged through robust economic and moral support for the protesters and diplomatic pressure on the regime. But in both cases, the United States opted for a policy of strategic silence.
The result? In Iran, we saw the window for change snap shut as the mullahs brutally crushed the protests and accelerated their nuclear weapons program. In Syria, hopes that President Bashar al-Assad would turn out to be a reformer proved groundless and the situation descended into chaos. Today, some 100,000 Syrians have been killed, and both Hezbollah and al Qaeda are engaged in a vicious civil war — one the president is now dragging the United States into, albeit with no clear purpose or strategy.
Hopefully, we can avoid repeating the same mistake yet again in Egypt. As we prepare to celebrate the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence this week, halfway around the globe Egyptians may witness the birth of their own freedoms. It is a great pity that Obama’s policies have provoked so much hostility toward the United States from the very people we should most want to support — and it would be an even greater pity if his accommodation of the Morsy regime helped the Egyptian leader remain in power. Since the president has refused to act, Congress should move quickly to freeze all aid to Egypt that is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. We should treat with great caution any proposal to deploy U.S. forces to Egypt in response to these events. And we should find the courage to speak out forcefully on behalf of those advocating secular democratic reforms in Egypt.