There is widespread acknowledgment among foreign policy gurus that President Obama, as my colleague Marc Thiessen writes, “has managed to alienate virtually everyone in Egypt. The ousted Islamists hate us — because we are infidels and because they think we engineered their removal. And the secular opposition hates us for standing with the Islamists.” But what to do now is more knotty issue.
One school of thought is that we need to get back to elections as soon as possible. A military coup is contrary to the long-term interests and stability of the country, the thinking goes, and the sooner Egypt can bring back a civilian government with legitimacy, the better.
The other school of thought says quick elections without respect for civil liberties, religious tolerance and the rule of secular law are exactly what the country doesn’t want. The army got rid of and humiliated the Muslim Brotherhood and we should count our lucky stars, this argument goes. Quick elections will likely bring back some Islamist government.
The Obama administration can’t make up its mind on which way to go, so it alternates between wildly undeserved praise for whoever is in power (e.g. Mohamed Morsi) and unbridled faith in the mob.
But events are moving more swiftly than the administration. The Post reports: “The political wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood called Monday for a popular uprising against the military after soldiers opened fire on supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi who had gathered outside the building where they believe Morsi is being held. State-run television said that 51 people were killed and 435 were wounded in the shooting. Mahmoud Zaqzooq, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, said 53 were shot dead, including five children.”
The first order of business, then, is not the timing of elections but the restoration of calm, without which neither the army nor any political party can govern. The United States, which has touted its relationship both with the Egyptian army and Morsi’s forces, should be pulling out all the stops, including the interruption of aid, to insist on an end to violence. It is the only leverage we’ve got and we should exercise it. The Egypt Working Group, composed of foreign policy experts and human rights advocates, notes:
Abiding by the aid legislation will be unpopular with many Egyptians, and will cause tension in the bilateral relationship. But it need not rupture relations with Egypt’s military or harm security cooperation, as long as the army fulfills its duty to shepherd a democratic transition. On the contrary, the administration should make clear to Egypt’s generals and in its public statements the desire to maintain a close working relationship and to resume aid promptly once a democratically-elected government has taken office.
Another positive step would be to recall Ambassador Anne Patterson, who infuriated Morsi’s critics by refusing to speak out against his dictatorial moves. That in and of itself may help signal that we are not in the business of propping up Morsi. The president should dig up someone else who doesn’t come with baggage and has some credibility with both sides.
Then the administration must begin doing what it should have done from its first day: set out our requirements for a robust U.S. relationship (respect for human rights, protection of religious minorities, civil liberties, adherence to international obligations). We should be clear that we will commit to help Egypt dig its way out of its political and economic mess if the parties can reconcile with minimal violence (most likely, entailing the release of Morsi and forgoing show trials) and move in the direction of a constitution and elections that further these goals.
In other words, stop aid, show some tough love to the Egyptian army, convey to the Egyptian people that we will not support another Islamic authoritarian state and urge everyone to move in the direction, not simply of elections, but of greater liberty and economic recovery.