The White House rationalized last week’s military coup in Egypt as providing the opportunity for a “do-over,” and that’s a comforting idea in more ways than one. But political life doesn’t come with an eraser to neatly remove mistakes and start over — especially in the explosive Middle East.
Egypt did need a new start. President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government had bungled so badly that Egypt was in the equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as I described it a month ago. Morsi resisted attempts by the United States and Qatar to mediate a compromise. The military’s intervention has begun a terrible new cycle of violence, but Egypt couldn’t have continued much longer in its crippled state. Something had to give.
The tragedy of Morsi’s presidency was that he was such a wooden and incompetent leader in a nation of such creative and dynamic people. Egypt deserved better, and that’s why many — perhaps most — Egyptians supported the army’s action.
Egypt’s second revolution, in theory, provides an opportunity to get democracy back on track. This means elections for president and parliament within six to nine months; writing a real constitution, rather than a rush job; training a democratic police force that can provide security for a traumatized population; and a major infusion of cash from the Gulf countries to restore confidence and get Egypt’s economy moving again.
The problem is that Egypt is a fragile, combustible nation, rather than an anesthetized patient on the operating table waiting for a transfusion. Last weekend, it seemed possible that the new military-backed government could reach out to Islamists such as the Salafist Nour Party that had supported the coup, and even to elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. But then came Monday’s killing of more than 50 Muslim Brotherhood protesters — an event that was horrific but also predictable. Morsi made clear in his final speech that he and his supporters prefer martyrdom to compromise.
What role should the United States play in Egypt’s trauma? That brings us to the second do-over. Washington let Egypt dangle during the unfolding disaster of Morsi’s presidency. The White House left policy largely in the hands of Ambassador Anne Patterson in Cairo. She’s one of the nation’s best diplomats, but her focus inevitably was on working with the elected government. That led many Egyptians to see the United States as Morsi’s enabler — and to demonize Patterson personally. This was unfair, but it was a consequence of a too-passive stance in Washington.
This time around, President Obama needs to lead an effort by all of America’s regional allies — from Saudi Arabia to Qatar to Israel — in helping the new Egyptian government to succeed. The White House prided itself during the Morsi reign that America was no longer the issue for Islamists. That turned out to be hubris. America needs to stay engaged with moderate political forces in the Middle East all the time; the region is at the beginning of a long slog to justice and democracy, with many reversals along the way. The United States doesn’t have the luxury of sitting this process out.
The idea that America should cut off assistance to Egypt in protest of the coup, as advanced by Sen. John McCain and others, makes little sense except as a piece of pro-democracy rhetoric. This is a time for America to be more engaged, rather than less so, with Egypt and its rulers (even generals). Better to continue aid, and insist that it be conditioned on the military scheduling early elections.
The final do-over is the hardest. The true danger of the coup and subsequent arrests and killings is that they will drive the Muslim Brotherhood back underground — and renew the cycle of government repression and terrorist violence that has skewed the Muslim world for generations. That political impasse led to the rise of al-Qaeda (from Egyptian roots) and the world-altering events of Sept. 11, 2001. This is the part we really need to get right this time.
What has America learned over a dozen years? Protect the homeland without creating a surveillance state in America. Don’t send U.S. armies to fight Middle East wars. Promote tolerance for Muslims at home and abroad. Stay engaged with moderate Islamist forces. Help counterterrorism partners such as the Egyptian military to provide security but not repression.
Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, offers a final caution for the do-over: “The Muslim Brotherhood isn’t al-Qaeda, and don’t push them in that direction.” The push unfortunately accelerated with Monday’s killings. Slow it down.