BEFORE THE July 3 coup in Egypt, the Obama administration privately warned the armed forces against ousting the government of Mohamed Morsi, pointing to U.S. legislation that requires the cutoff of aid to any country where the army plays a “decisive role” in removing an elected government. Yet when the generals ignored the U.S. warnings, the White House responded by electing to disregard the law itself. After a prolonged and embarrassing delay, the State Department announced that it had chosen not to determine whether a coup had taken place, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared that Egypt’s military was “restoring democracy.”
Because of those decisions, the Obama administration is complicit in the new and horrifyingly bloody crackdown launched Wednesday by the de facto regime against tens of thousands of protesters who had camped out in two Cairo squares. At least 278 people were reported killed, including many women and children. Chaos erupted around Egypt as angry mobs stormed Christian churches, which went largely unprotected by security forces. The military imposed a state of emergency, essentially returning Egypt to the autocratic status quo that existed before the 2011 revolution.
The Obama administration duly protested the latest crackdown, just as it previously urged the miltary not to use force against the demonstrations and to release Mr. Morsi and other political prisoners. The military’s disregard for these appeals was logical and predictable: Washington had already demonstrated that its warnings were not credible. Indeed, even as police were still gunning down unarmed civilians in the streets of Cairo Wednesday, a White House spokesman was reiterating to reporters the administration’s determination not to make a judgement about whether the terms of the anti-coup legislation had been met.
This refusal to take a firm stand against massive violations of human rights is as self-defeating for the United States as it is unconscionable. Continued U.S. support for the Egyptian military is helping to push the country toward a new dictatorship rather than a restored democracy. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the coup leader, increasingly is styling himself as a national savior in the mode of such former dictators asGamal Abdel Nasser; Wednesday’s bloody assault represents his crushing of civilian moderates in the interim cabinet who had called for compromise with Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Appropriately, their leader, Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, resigned.
It is difficult to imagine how the assault on the Brotherhood, which won multiple elections and is still supported by millions of Egyptians, can be followed by a credible transition to democracy. More likely, it will lead Egypt toward still greater violence. It may be that outside powers cannot now change this tragic course of events. But if the United States wishes to have some chance to influence a country that has been its close ally for four decades, it must immediately change its policy toward the armed forces. That means the complete suspension of all aid and cooperation, coupled with the message that relations will resume when — and if — the generals end their campaign of repression and take tangible steps to restore democracy.