IN EGYPT’S secular society, conventional wisdom holds that the United States is backing the Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi and reconstructing with his Muslim Brotherhood the corrupt relationship it once had with strongman Hosni Mubarak. For the most part, it’s an untrue and unfair story. But the fact that so many prominent and well-educated Egyptians believe it is an indication of how the Obama administration is failing to conduct or even articulate a coherent policy for post-revolutionary Egypt.

Egyptians who believe in the Morsi-as-American-client theory point to his close cooperation with President Obama during last year’s fighting between Israel and Hamas, the announcement of $250 million in fresh economic aid by Secretary of State John F. Kerry during a visit to Cairo last month, and Washington’s low-key response to Mr. Morsi’s violations of democratic order. Mr. Morsi, like Mr. Mubarak before him, seems to be allowed a free hand to repress opponents and concentrate power in exchange for keeping peace with Israel and cooperating in hot spots such as the Gaza Strip.

The reality is that the United States is not so much propping up Mr. Morsi’s government as it is flailing in its attempts to build a working relationship with it and exert influence. While U.S. cooperation with the Egyptian military, which has walled itself off from the civilian government, remains strong, there has been little in the way of strategic cooperation between the administration and Mr. Morsi in recent months. A proposed visit by the president to Washington was twice postponed and is now on hold.

Mr. Kerry’s aid announcement was aimed at coaxing Mr. Morsi into finalizing a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail out Egypt’s crumbling economy. U.S. officials hoped the pact would serve the political purpose of forcing the Islamists to compromise with the secular opposition to win public toleration of IMF-mandated austerity measures. But Mr. Morsi short-circuited that strategy by seeking, and quickly winning, $5 billion in aid from Qatar and Libya — funds that should allow the government to avoid both an IMF deal and a financial collapse before October, when new parliamentary elections are now expected.

With the Arab money in hand, Mr. Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood leaders appear increasingly disinclined to heed advice, appeals or even criticism from Washington. A proposed law that would eviscerate civil society groups and ban congressionally funded organizations such as the National Democratic Institute from operating in Egypt is moving forward. Senior leaders have been spewing anti-American rhetoric. An expression of concern by the State Department about a criminal case brought against a television satirist prompted an angry response from the ruling party.

The right way for the administration to regain its footing in Egypt is neither to pivot toward backing the secular opposition nor to seek accommodation with the government. Instead, the United States should have a policy centered on widening and preserving the democratic opening that followed the 2011 revolution. The administration should speak more, including from the White House, when free speech, free assembly or free elections are threatened; it should find ways to continue and increase its support for Egypt’s civil society. It should reach out more to opposition leaders, while making clear to them and to the military that non-peaceful means for challenging Mr. Morsi’s government are unacceptable.

In short, the United States should worry less about influencing or cooperating with Mr. Morsi’s government and more about helping Egyptians defend liberal values.