The Post reported over the weekend: “The death toll from clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi has risen to 72, the health ministry reported Sunday, as both sides appeared to harden their resolve and doubts grew about the chances for national reconciliation.”

Morsi supporters rally (Mohammed Saber / European Pressphoto Agency )

And today we hear that the European Union, not the United States, is stepping in to try to stop the violence. (“Europe’s top diplomat urged Egypt’s government to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood as she worked to mediate an end to the country’s increasingly bloody crisis even as mainly Islamist protesters calling for the return of ousted leader Mohamed Morsi massed for more protests.”) That in turn has sparked a Muslim Brotherhood march on the military’s intelligence headquarters. To top it off, we see that “in the Sinai, where the re­action to Morsi’s ouster turned deadly within days of the coup, such state-sponsored violence and repression is likely to only feed the conviction of militants, who see themselves as waging a war against a despotic and irreligious military regime.” In other words, the Brotherhood is returning to the role of terrorist opposition, as it poses a threat to the security of Israel’s southern border.

In other words, Egypt is coming apart at the seams and the United States is no more than a bystander to the collapse of the country that once led the Arab world. This is predictable, given that we have done little to support Egyptian democracy. Russell Berman of the Hoover Institute argues that the administration “repeatedly betrayed the proponents of democratic change.” He writes:

In Egypt, the Obama administration did turn against Hosni Mubarak, once an American ally, but it stood faithfully by his successor, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, even as the protests against him grew massive. Although Morsi pursued an agenda inimical to liberal values, Washington shrugged off his critics.  This tin-eared allegiance to Islamism-in-power has fanned the flames of anti-Americanism in the Egyptian democracy movement. …

The US should support Egypt in moving toward liberty with the help of whatever influence and credibility this administration’s compromised foreign policy has not yet squandered. While insisting on the validity of our principles of freedom, equality and tolerance, Washington should find ways to support a broad range of democratic forces in Egypt and make clear to the military that continued funding depends on its acting in ways conducive to the growth of democratic institutions.

Indeed, as the military announced a trial for Morsi and escalated the violence, the Obama administration went into its deer-in-the-headlights mode, saying little of import and doing nothing.

There is a bizarre spectacle unfolding in the Middle East. The administration prevails upon the region’s only functioning democracy to release Islamic terrorists but has nothing useful to offer when it comes to quelling violence after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. We do what is easier, not what is most important or most likely to improve chances for peace and stability in the region.

Even deciding whether the coup was a coup is beyond the Obama State Department. This exchange Friday with State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki was downright embarrassing:

QUESTION: Okay. So how – it took three and a half weeks to come up with a decision that you’re going to ignore the law?

MS. PSAKI: It is not ignoring the law. It was a review of what is applicable under the law, abiding the law. We’re continuing to work with Congress. This is ongoing. Obviously, our relationship with Egypt and the aid we provide and decisions over that is an ongoing process. So today is not an end. As we’ve talked about quite a bit in here, certainly the circumstances that have happened on the ground are very complicated. And we wanted to take the time and do due diligence to review. But there’s no question that there’s a larger issue of our strategic interests here and our interests as it relates to regional peace and security.

QUESTION: Yeah, but has this ever been done – are you aware – surely the building is aware – if you have ever done this before?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I have not —

QUESTION: Since the law was enacted, can you name one time that you’ve chosen to basically ignore it? And also, I still didn’t hear any answer to the question as to why did it take three weeks to come up with this – come up with a determination that you’re not going to – that you’re going to apply the law in some cases and not others, and this is a case that you’re not going to apply it?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think that the American people would be appreciative of the fact that we took the time to evaluate, and what is applicable under the law, and take into account our important national security interests here. I’m not a historian, as we all know, and there’s a lot going on here, so I certainly haven’t reviewed historical references. But —

QUESTION: Well, is there a precedent for this? Do you know?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any historical references to point you to. But we’re obviously evaluating this as a specific situation.

QUESTION: Okay. Is your understanding of – that when you use the phrase “rule of law,” do you understand that to mean that you apply the law consistently? Like, when you tell or call on another government to respect the rule of law, do you understand that to mean that you – that you’re calling on them to apply the law consistently and not selectively?

MS. PSAKI: Well, when we have used rule of law, most commonly, as you know, we use it as it applies to giving people proper charges and evaluating circumstances like arrests.

QUESTION: Oh, no, I’m talking about the – just the – no, not in terms of a criminal defendant.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I’m talking about in terms of a government playing by its own rules.

MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, that is why we reviewed the law and we – our legal team reviewed – undertook a review.

QUESTION: But this —

MS. PSAKI: And this is an ongoing process.

QUESTION: But what you reviewed was the actual – you didn’t review the events that happened in Egypt. You reviewed the law and decided that you didn’t have to – and came to this conclusion, which is mind-boggling, I think, that you don’t have to use it.

MS. PSAKI: It’s not that we don’t have to use it; it’s we don’t need to determine – we don’t need to make a public declaration about whether this was a coup or not. That is what was determined.


QUESTION: Jen, how is it that in deciding that you don’t need to make such a determination, you are not flouting the spirit of the law?

MS. PSAKI: Well, given that our legal team was an important part of this process, certainly I would refute any notion that we were flouting the law. But it is important here —

QUESTION: I didn’t say the law; I said the spirit of the law.

MS. PSAKI: Well, I would refute that notion. Our legal team was an important part of this process. But the context of this is certainly very important here, which is our – the stabilizing pillar that is Egypt and the important role it plays in regional peace and stability.

QUESTION: The reason I asked about spirit as opposed to the letter is that, like you, I’ve read the very short portions of the law.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And it does not – and you’re right, it does not oblige —

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — an administration to make a determination. But it does seem that the spirit of the law and the way in which it has been previously applied was that it was implicit that an administration should make a determination as to whether a military coup occurred and that therefore, it should then decide to cut off aid. So I can see how in a narrow, legalistic manner you can argue that you have obeyed the letter of the law because there is no obligation —

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — to make a determination. I do not see, nor have you explained, how what you have decided is in keeping with the spirit of the law.

MS. PSAKI: Well, the spirit of the law is a very theoretical question. I will say that there’s also an important context we have talked about here, in the millions of Egyptians who had legitimate grievances, who expressed their concern with President Morsy’s non-inclusive form of governance and demanded a new, more inclusive, representative and responsive government. So that is an important context here too. What I was trying to answer for you is the context of how this decision was made. It’s not just looking at a paragraph. Certainly, abiding by our legal obligations is always a priority to the United States, and always something we’re focused on. But there is a greater context here in terms of our national security interests, in terms of the millions of people who’ve expressed their grievances in Egypt.

QUESTION: But isn’t – I mean, sorry, but isn’t abiding by your legal obligations not merely a priority, but paramount?

MS. PSAKI: Of course it is.

QUESTION: Okay, so then —

MS. PSAKI: And we have. And they’ve reviewed it.

And on it went in this fashion. The president likes to talk about “nation-building here in America.” Maybe what we need is some democracy promotion.