The Wall Street Journal reports: “Secretary of State John Kerry, seeking to promote a quick political transition in Egypt, will face a gathering of Arab leaders this week who have already expressed strong support for the Egyptian military and its decision to overthrow President Mohammed Morsi.” If there is a U.S. policy on Egypt (and if there is one, we haven’t seen it) it should not mimic that of the Sunni states petrified of the return of the Muslim Brotherhood:

John Kerry Secretary of State John Kerry (Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

The Obama administration has publicly threatened to cut more than $1.5 billion in annual military and economic aid to Egypt if Cairo’s generals don’t quickly set a path toward a new civilian government. The U.S. is also pressing Egypt to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to take part in the process.

Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Kuwait, conversely, have showered $12 billion in economic aid on Egypt in recent weeks and publicly praised the military for its actions. “The idea of weakening the Egyptian military doesn’t make sense to us,” said a senior Arab official taking part in the Arab League meeting. “We think the U.S. will only reduce its influence in Egypt if it does so.

In essence, the other Arab states want Mubarak-ism back without Mubarak, and look to the Egyptian military to suppress the boiling cauldron of conflicting interests and violence that overflowed during the Arab Spring. This cannot be the position of the United States, which, however inconsistently, has stood for progress toward democracy (not to mention modernity) in the Middle East. To now reverse course and support the rule of military autocrats would betray the so-called liberal secularists who offer the way forward for Egypt. And, as a practical matter, we know the army has not been able to govern.

Perhaps the most positive contribution the U.S. has made since the coup came in the form of an attempt to prevent a cycle of retribution. “Mr. Kerry’s trip comes on the heels of one by the State Department’s No. 2 official, Deputy Secretary William Burns, who visited Cairo on Monday and issued an urgent call for the release of members of Mr. Morsi’s political movement, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, who have been detained by the military-led interim government.” If the lust for revenge is not extinguished, the lesson for Egypt and the MB will be that the power of the gun triumphs over the power of the ballot box. The result will be endless violence if not civil war in Egypt.

That is not to say it’s a wise move to push for immediate elections. There is no sign that the MB had a plan to govern Egypt, nor is there evidence that anti-Morsi players have the political organization to win elections or to govern. In short, Obama’s admonition that democracy is more than elections now must be put into practice.

That means the U.S. should stop putting the cart before the horse. The horse has to be nothing less than the creation of a functioning political system, the expansion of civil society, the normalization of the media (now devoted to bizarre conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic rants), and perhaps most important an economic game plan, which will necessity include some pain for the Egyptian populace as unsustainable bread and fuel subsidies are reduced.

In other words, steady progress toward a freer Egyptian society is more important than abrupt elections. Ultimately, the development of a political culture in which elections can take place and legitimacy is restored should be the goal. That means we do not try to recreate an authoritarian state (which we know is inherently unstable). And that means we avoid, if possible, sending the MB back outside of the political system as a violent and aggrieved opponent of the Egyptian government (in whatever guise it takes). In this regard, we and our Sunni allies must part company.