August 19, 2013

IN THE spring of 2011, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad responded to the first massive protests against his regime with unrelenting violence. Security forces opened fire on unarmed civilians who joined demonstrations. Proposals by Western governments and neighbors for democratic reforms or negotiations with the opposition were evaded by Mr. Assad, who insisted on tarring all opponents as terrorists. The scorched-earth policy soon prompted the United States and many of its allies to impose sanctions on Syria, and two years ago this month President Obama called for the end of the Assad regime.

Now Egypt’s military-backed government appears to have embarked on a frighteningly similar course. Rejecting U.S. and European proposals for a de-escalation of its conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, the armed forces have brutally attacked the group’s supporters, killing hundreds. The regime is orchestrating a propaganda campaign labeling the Islamists as terrorists, even though there is no evidence that the movement’s leaders — many of whom are being held incommunicado — have given up a decades-long commitment to nonviolence. Critical Egyptian media have been silenced and foreign journalists attacked. Meanwhile, security forces have failed to protect Christian churches from assaults by mobs.

This is not only a moral challenge to the United States. If continued, Egypt’s crackdown may lead it toward the catastrophe Syria has experienced: civil war; massive flows of refugees; the appearance of a powerful new branch of al-Qaeda. While it may be difficult for outside powers to restrain the generals, the Obama administration and its allies are not doing all that they can. The crisis demands the delivery of an unambiguous message to the regime that a continued attempt to repress the Muslim Brotherhood by force, or the installation of a new autocracy, will leave Egypt isolated from the West. That means the immediate suspension of all aid and the promise of further sanctions if the deliberate killing of civilians does not stop.

Some argue that if aid is suspended the United States will lose influence with the military. But the past seven weeks have clearly shown that maintaining aid has bought the Obama administration no favor with de facto ruler Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who has repeatedly disregarded U.S. counsel. Some worry that Egypt would react to an aid suspension by backing away from its peace treaty with Israel or its fight against the real Islamist terrorists based in the Sinai Peninsula. But those policies are in the country’s vital interest, and the armed forces will not abandon them.

In reality, Egypt is far more vulnerable to U.S. and European pressure than is Syria or most any other Arab state. Not only is the military dependent on U.S. weapons, spare parts and training but the economy, based on tourism and foreign investment, also has no chance of recovering without Western support. The billions in cash supplied to the new regime by Saudi Arabia and other Arab supporters is a temporary salve; in the end, any government seeking stability will need to come to terms with the International Monetary Fund, where U.S. influence is strong.

A forceful and united stand by Western governments against the course the Egyptian military is pursuing could bring the generals to their senses before it is too late. They must be made to understand that a new Egyptian autocracy will never be accepted by the United States or Europe. At the moment, they believe otherwise. There is an opportunity this week, as European foreign ministers meet to discuss Egypt. They should resolve to suspend all aid and cooperation until the crackdown is halted and a credible movement toward democracy begun, and the United States should join them.

Read more in Opinions:

Jackson Diehl: Obama’s dangerous passivity on Egypt

The Post’s View: Obama administration is complicit in Egypt’s crackdown

Eugene Robinson: A lack of spine on Egypt

Shibley Telhami: Egypt’s identity crisis