The Egyptian army has executed a relatively bloodless coup and Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi is out.
The Egyptian military removed President Mohamed Morsi from power Wednesday and suspended the constitution in moves it said were aimed at resolving the country’s debilitating political crisis.
In a televised address to the nation after a meeting with a group of civilian political and religious leaders, the head of the powerful armed forces, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, said the chief of Egypt’s constitutional court “will assume the presidency” on an interim basis until a new presidential election is held. Sissi said the interim president will have the right to declare laws during the transitional period.
That’s generally the good news and reflects the army’s unease with directly ruling the country (more about that in a moment). Now comes the much knottier problem of what to do. To be blunt, the crisis has just begun.
It would be unseemly for President Obama to cheer the coup, not only because it is the antithesis of democracy but because until this week we were backing Morsi to the hilt. But neither should the administration be pushing for instantaneous elections. Egypt may have escaped complete ruin by a skillfully timed military intervention, and there is no use denying that.
The primary and immediate crisis there is an economic one. As one Middle East observer put it: “They are broke. They can’t buy diesel. Without diesel they can’t feed their people.” This is precisely why the army was hesitant to again take over. Directly ruling the country would mean the economic meltdown becomes the army’s problem.
The United States and our Gulf allies should consider some emergency relief and beyond that provide considerable assistance in rebuilding an Egyptian economy, devastated by constant unrest and the evaporation of tourism.
Beyond that immediate concern, it will be critical to see whether the army-backed judge will adhere to the peace treaty with Israel and undertake its security operations in the Sinai. Things are looking more hopeful in that department if only because the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s parent, is now gone and disgraced. Egypt’s military has had good relations with both the United States and Israel so the issue may be more one of limited capability to police the Sinai (the army has to be fed, too) than lack of will.
The bigger political picture is certainly problematic. President Obama said it himself the other day: Democracy is more than elections. So the goal for Egypt and its allies, including the United States, ideally should be to encourage steps toward expanded liberty (in the media, for example) and respect for minorities and women. If we think secular democracy is possible in Egypt, we should get to work with real communication with and assistance to those players who generally favor the rule of (secular) law and greater human rights. If a new constitution is to be drafted, the United States should stress that it enjoys the best, closest relations with nations that listen to their people, respect minority rights and uphold their international obligations. We shouldn’t be picking winners or drafting Egyptian law, but we certainly should be candid in stressing what will and won’t put Egypt’s relationship with the United States at risk.
A statement quickly issued by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) struck the appropriate tone:
Egypt’s stability is tremendously important for America’s national security and for the security of our allies in the Middle East. The Egyptian military has long been a key
partner of the United States and a stabilizing force in the region, and is perhaps the only trusted national institution in Egypt today. In the difficult days ahead, it will be important for Egyptian authorities to safeguard the
rights, interests, and security of all of Egypt’s citizens. . . . The Egyptian people have made clear that President Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government has threatened
the pluralistic democracy for which they called two years ago. As President Obama has said, democracy is about more than elections. It is important that
Egypt’s leaders listen to their people, whose calls for a transparent and pluralistic democratic process should be respected.
But swapping the Muslim Brotherhood for Salafists in hastily scheduled elections would be no improvement. So again, modest steps and patience should be the order of the day.