October 17, 2013

Norm Coleman, a Republican U.S. senator from Minnesota from 2003 to 2009, was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He recently traveled to Cairo, where he met with officials in the country’s interim government.

The recently announced reduction in U.S. aid to Egypt adds an unfortunate layer of ambiguity to a Middle East policy that has yielded mostly unintended consequences rather than stability and hope.

Now is the time to decisively pull Egypt from the grasp of fundamentalists and return to our orbit a key U.S. ally in the region. But at the very moment when U.S. policy should be reinforcing the interim government’s move toward democracy, the partial cut in aid gives validation to those in Egypt who hate the United States; in particular, it is helping the Muslim Brotherhood cling to what little credibility it has left. Like many Americans, Egyptians must be wondering whose side Washington is on. Leaders in Egypt and the region must know with whom the United States stands.

Former president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are no champions of democracy. After winning election last year, Morsi revealed his true colors, turning the government over to the Muslim Brotherhood and undermining Egypt’s nascent democracy. The promise of a “national unity government” was never fulfilled. Instead, Morsi further divided an already polarized Egypt. He nullified the power of the judiciary by decree, declaring that his government was not subject to its rulings. Coptic churches are being torched with the imprimatur of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi was removed from office this summer by popular demand. More than 22 million Egyptians, overwhelmingly Muslim, signed a petition and took to the streets calling for his ouster.

After being caught on the wrong side of the uprising, the Obama administration has not adjusted to reality. The U.S. government’s apparent indifference adds to Egypt’s continuing instability.

Scaling back aid to Egypt is another indecisive gesture. Yes, the administration’s move could have been worse. The White House did not declare Egypt’s change in government a “coup,” which under U.S. law would require suspending all aid. The measured scope of U.S. policy is clearly calculated to avoid further damage to Egypt’s domestic security or hinder its obligations under the Camp David treaty with Israel. But if there is a message in our government’s recent action, it is difficult to discern.

Egypt’s interim government is proceeding on a timetable that leads to a presidential election next year. This month, a 50-member constitutional committee is amending and rewriting the partisan constitution that Morsi pushed through in December, which exclusively favored the Muslim Brotherhood. The committee was drawn from all aspects of Egyptian society, including fundamentalist political parties (the Muslim Brotherhood was invited but declined to participate). A nationwide referendum on the new constitution is scheduled for December, with parliamentary elections in March. For the sake of the Egyptian — and the American — people, the United States must encourage Egypt’s interim government to stay on course.

More broadly, the United States must articulate a global strategy in what has become a cold war between the civilized societies of the world and violent Islamic fundamentalists who seek our overthrow. This is a mortal struggle with enemies who diametrically oppose Western moral philosophies and democratic worldviews.

Sending in U.S. Special Operations forces to pick off jihadist leaders one by one is the heroic work of a few brave men and women. But a guiding sense of mission is missing. If U.S. officials had an overarching strategy, it would point to giving full aid and support to Egypt’s interim government at this critical juncture.

We cannot afford another Syria. The lack of a clear U.S. policy on Syria’s civil war left a void that has been exploited by our enemies. By the time a policy was in place, hundreds of thousands of civilians had been killed or displaced and jihadists had flooded into the rebel movement and become a significant faction — one the United States was not prepared to deal with.

The United States badly needs to restore trust and credibility with moderate Arabs. It has an opening to do so with Egypt, but so far our country has not engaged. President Obama must put his administration’s full support behind the Egyptian people. If the administration prioritizes its goals — fostering a stable Middle East and articulating a reliable and consistent position in the global struggle against terrorists and violent fundamentalists — and admit that Morsi’s presidency was the flawed result of a good idea, then democracy still has a real chance in Egypt. If not, the unintended consequences may take many years to overcome.