At the State Department briefing on Monday, spokesman Patrick Ventrell observed about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi: “He’s the democratically elected leader of Egypt, as the president said this morning.” He is, indeed, and it gets complicated as the United States tries to navigate between a Muslim Brotherhood leader in whom they invested too much confidence and aiding and the opposition, which carries legitimate objections to Morsi’s slide into Islamic authoritarianism.
Former CIA analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht told me that while the military might prefer to push Morsi out, if it does so, “it basically will destroy the legitimacy of Egyptian democracy since the Brotherhood and the Salafists clearly won parliament, Morsi won the presidency, and the Muslim Brotherhood constitution won overwhelming approval. The secular opposition wants to establish a political arrangement where they win even if they lose.”
Gerecht questioned whether the military really wants to go down this road. “I don’t think the military wants to test its strength now,” he stressed. “But it may feel it has no choice, given the size of the demonstrations. Westernization has brilliantly succeeded in Egypt, at least in that it has created a large slice of the population that loathes the idea of Islamist government.” He added, ” It’s an extraordinarily difficult situation.”
Unfortunately, it is hard to have much confidence in the Obama team to figure it all out. Obama went way too far in bolstering Morsi and not making aid contingent on improved political and economic conditions. So now we see an emboldened Morsi, an aggrieved populace, an economy near collapse and secular opposition leaders who mistrust the U.S. government. We are, as has been the case for so much of the Obama administration, a bystander.
Add to that the weird spectacle of John Kerry busying himself with the moribund ‘peace process’ as other events transfix the region. Even the New York Times noticed that “with so much of the Middle East still convulsing from the effects of the Arab Spring, Mr. Kerry’s efforts raise questions about the Obama administration’s priorities at a time of renewed regional unrest.” Even if he drags the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, there is virtually no chance of success, and nothing in that diplomatic cul-de-sac is going to improve regional stability. Kerry’s fixation instead has the effect of making the administration look clueless. (“But analysts said that the gravity of the crisis in Egypt would force him and other senior officials to shift their attention to Cairo, where American policy, some say, has failed to keep up with events.”)
A number of foreign policy analysts I spoke with on Monday cautioned that it is far too early to see if Morsi or the army blink and if the protesters turn violent. As Bret Stephens put it: “The best outcome for Egypt would be early elections, leading to the Brotherhood’s defeat at the hands of a reformist, technocratic government with military support. The second-best outcome would be a bloodless military coup, followed by the installment of a reformist government.” In other words, it would be great if the Egyptians could undo our flawed policy that backed the Muslim Brotherhood leader to the hilt.
Whatever happens, the administration needs to exercise leverage using aid, trade and diplomacy. Unless and until we make clear that U.S. support will not go to those who behaved as Mubarak did and as Morsi has, we’ll be forever on the wrong side of history.