Egypt is not starting over. It has taken a large step backward. And the Obama administration bears much blame. It put little or no meaningful pressure on Mubarak to make even minor political reforms that might have been enough to prevent the anti-regime outburst that exploded at the end of 2010. Then it put little or no tangible pressure on Morsi to end his undemocratic practices, which might have forestalled the most recent crisis.
It has become fashionable in today’s “post-American world” milieu to argue that the United States had no ability to shape events in Egypt. This is absurd. The United States is far from being all-powerful, but neither is it powerless. Americans provide $1.5 billion a year in assistance to Egypt, $1.3 billion of which goes to the Egyptian military. It has leverage over the decisions of the IMF and influence with other international donors on whom Egypt’s economy depends. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt wields so much potential influence that Egyptians obsess daily over whom she is meeting, and they concoct wild conspiracies based on trivial events. The assumption in Egypt, as in much of the Arab world, is that nothing happens unless the United States wills it. The problem is not that the United States has no power but that the Obama administration has been either insufficiently interested or too cautious and afraid to use what power the United States has.
It has also become fashionable once again to argue that Muslim Arabs are incapable of democracy — this after so many millions of them came out to vote in Egypt, only to see Western democracies do little or nothing when the product of their votes was overthrown. Had the United States showed similar indifference in the Philippines and South Korea, I suppose wise heads would still be telling us that Asians, too, have no vocation for democracy.
So now that the military coup has occurred, how do we avoid the “seismic repercussions”? Any answer must begin with a complete suspension of all aid to Egypt, especially military aid, until there is a new democratic government, freely elected with the full participation of all parties and groups in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The Obama administration then needs to work closely with other nations and the IMF to ensure that no loans or other forms of economic aid are provided to Egypt until democratic governance is restored. This approach runs contrary to the Obama administration’s instincts, which until now have been to work cooperatively with whoever holds power in Egypt and to avoid overt forms of pressure.
It is past time to get out of this rut of failure. Better to learn from our history than to repeat it. It will be sad if some future American president has to apologize to Egyptians for what Barack Obama did, and did not do, in 2013.