The Arab Spring in Egypt looks a whole lot like the Hosni Mubarak tin-pot dictatorship, minus the secularism, good relationship with Israel and reliable partnership with the West. In other words, Egypt now may have Mubarak-style oppression plus Islamist rule.
No sooner had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lifted off from the truce photo-op when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi seized expansive powers reminiscent of Mubarak’s “emergency powers,” which lasted for decades.
The Post reported, “With Islamists lining up behind President Mohamed Morsi and secular leaders rallying against him, the development threatened to wipe away once and for all the unlikely joining of the two forces that brought down Egypt’s longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011. . . . Having congratulated Morsi earlier in the week for his statesmanship in fostering a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, State Department officials said the United States was seeking an explanation for the new move, which removed all judicial checks over Morsi’s actions.”
The explanation is self-evident: This is not secularized democracy protective of the rule of law and individual rights but Islamist authoritarianism.
In addition to the street violence, there were signs of a schism in Egyptian society. Egyptian judges and prosecutors vowed a strike and demanded, along with secular leaders and parties, that Morsi retract his power grab.
This is not working out so well, is it? Many hoped that the Arab Spring would bring meaningful stability, democracy and reform. Instead, there is turbulence, autocratic rule and Islamist rule.
So what does the U.S. administration do? For starters it should get over the pipe dream that it can pivot from the Middle East, downgrade foreign policy more generally, hand the reins over to third-rate political loyalists and go back to running up the debt. The world is not cooperating with President Obama’s plans for benign neglect.
Whatever the administration is saying publicly about Egypt, it should privately be spelling out to Morsi that robust relations with the United States depend on more than simply not breaking Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. The administration has been poor at nuanced diplomacy (“smart diplomacy,” if you will) in which carrots and sticks are deployed to try to influence events where possible.
We should be very clear, however, that we stand with governments that move toward respect for individual rights, protection of minorities (whether ethnic or religious) and economic reform. Morsi may be an ally, but we cannot give the impression that we approve of or are indifferent to domestic repression. Understanding that we have limited abilities to determine events, we nevertheless should undertake what steps we can take with Egypt to try to deter repressive behavior and to encourage Morsi to fulfill his obligations (including limiting smuggling of arms to Egypt).
Indeed throughout the region Obama will need to decide whether to be a passive spectator or to try to wield U.S. influence. In Syria, for example, Condoleezza Rice urges the administration to “vet and arm the unified group with defensive weapons on the condition that it pursues an inclusive post-Assad framework. The United States and its allies should also consider establishing a no-fly zone to protect the innocent. America’s weight and influence are needed. Leaving this to regional powers, whose interests are not identical to ours, will only exacerbate the deepening sectarianism.” (Where was she months ago?) It is far from clear that the administration has the will or skill to take on those tasks.
The choice in the Middle East is not a bipolar one — war or isolationism. But the middle ground, an effective foreign policy in which we maximize our influence by using the full range of U.S. power, requires attention, money and determination. I haven’t seen this administration willing to expend any of these. Let’s hope the recent events impress upon it that passivity and delay are dangerous. Oh, and maybe get a secretary of state who is capable of formulating coherent policy and not simply flacking for the president.