It’s Time to Work With Egypt’s Generals

In a turbulent time, Cairo's military is the best friend the United States has got.


The Obama administration has a near impossible challenge charting Egypt’s high seas in the midst of this latest political tempest. It would do well to proceed with quiet humility — and navigate for the only safe harbor in the relationship between Cairo and Washington: the Egyptian armed forces.

The Egyptian military is now the key actor in Cairo — the one actor that the United States can still influence. The U.S. military has strong ties, developed over decades of close cooperation, with its Egyptian counterparts. The Egyptian officers are heavily dependent on U.S. military assistance for their all-American equipped forces. We should be communicating to them through private, not public, military channels that they need to put quickly in place a credible transition to civilian, democratic rule because, without that, U.S. law dictates a cut-off of American aid to coup-makers. Some American politicians are already calling for that spigot of money to be shut off after Wednesday’s removal of the Morsy government. But actually cutting off the aid now would be highly counterproductive, turning the United States into the adversary of the very actors we now depend upon to return Egypt to a democratic path. 

It’s worth remembering that the ongoing revolution in Egypt is not about the United States — as Obama administration spokesmen aver — but Washington does have vital interests that need to be protected and promoted. Egypt is the largest, militarily most-powerful, culturally most-influential, and geostrategically most-important country in the Arab world. Its peace treaty with Israel is the cornerstone of America’s five-decade long effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and build a pro-Western coalition of moderate partners in a region in turmoil. And its democratic revolution still holds the potential for shifting the Arab world decisively in the direction of liberty, accountable government, and promotion of universal human rights. 

Our ability to influence the course of this revolution, however, is at best limited. America’s moral leadership in the eyes of the Egyptian people is heavily tarnished by our long and close association with the Hosni Mubarak regime. President Barack Obama’s last minute turn on Mubarak was the right call in the circumstances. But it could do little to convince the Egyptian street that we were now really on their side. And by publicly humiliating Mubarak in demanding that he vacate his office immediately, it did a lot to convince our other allies — the Sheikhs and Kings of Araby — that we would betray them just as quickly if they faced similar street protests. 

Deciding to engage with the legitimately elected Muslim Brotherhood government that eventually took Mubarak’s place was again the right call. But our failure to stand against Morsy when he began trampling on minority rights convinced the secular opposition that we were now in his corner. We appeared to be merely shifting our support from one authoritarian Pharaoh to the next. The banners in Tahrir Square this week that decried President Obama and the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, were a vivid signal of how badly we had managed to position the United States during this phase of the transition. We spoke out when we should’ve been working quietly to remove Mubarak; we stayed silent when we should’ve been calling out Morsy on his anti-democratic behavior.

The White House’s statement on July 3, in response to the Egyptian military’s removal of Morsy, only seems to have dug the United States into a deeper hole. By publicly expressing Obama’s "deep concern" about the removal of Morsy, insisting that he and his supporters not be arrested (when the Muslim Brotherhood leadership was already being rounded up), and publicly threatening to cut military assistance, we managed to signal to the millions of Egyptians who had demanded Morsy’s ouster and were busy celebrating the military’s intervention, that the United States was siding with their political adversary. For our allies in the Gulf, who have been quick to welcome Morsy’s demise, it was another example of our acting against their perceived interests. Even Israel’s leaders will be dismayed: their relations with the Egyptian military have grown much stronger since Mubarak’s overthrow; cutting U.S. aid is the last thing they will want.

Here again, it’s not the policy but the way it’s articulated and implemented that remains the problem. To be sure, President Obama is right to emphasize the need for a non-violent, consensual effort to promote a prompt return to civilian rule, constitutional reform, and a new electoral contest. But this is not the time for a lengthy White House proclamation about liberal democratic principles. Nobody in Egypt is listening to the nuances of our statements; but all will be quick to judge whose side Obama is taking. 

Instead, we ought to be utilizing the private military channels to Egypt’s generals to persuade them to adopt an inclusive return to democratic governance, protecting the rights of all, including to free speech. We should also utilize those private channels to broker the prompt release of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership based on assurances that they will urge their followers to stay calm and engage in a renewed electoral campaign (where they will still have an organizational advantage over their secular opponents). 

In the meantime, urgent steps need to be taken to arrest the free-fall in the Egyptian economy. Donors’ conferences that pledge aid that rarely arrives and International Monetary Fund agreements that require reducing subsidies on basic commodities at a time of political turmoil are unlikely to help in the short term. Vacating the streets and squares, reestablishing calm and normalcy, and channeling the Egyptian public’s energy into a renewed effort to write a consensual constitution and hold parliamentary and presidential elections, are the prerequisites for economic stability, the return of capital, and the renewal of growth.  But the only way to do that is by working quietly with the Egyptian military, not against it.  

<p> Martin Indyk is vice president and director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. </p> <p> On Oct. 24, Brookings will host a discussion on the issues raised at the final presidential debate. FP's Susan Glasser will moderate the panel, which will include Brookings Senior Fellows Robert Kagan, Suzanne Maloney, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Bruce Riedel. Martin Indyk will offer opening remarks. </p>