Egypt at the Crossroads


getty images

Published August 02, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

For Americans, the complicated, mercurial situation in Egypt defies easy description and obvious solutions. Hardest of all, it pits American values and ideals against American pragmatic, strategic interests, making the right thing to do not necessarily the wise thing to do. Beware those who offer simplistic directives; after the Arab Spring, simplistic policies won’t work anymore — if they ever really did.

So, yes, the Obama administration’s justification for avoiding use of the word “coup” to be able to continue military aid to Egypt is tortured and, frankly, skirts believability. Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act is clear that American aid is suspended when a “duly elected head of government is deposed by a military coup or decree.” The purists note that the United States can hardly castigate other nations for ignoring their own laws when that’s exactly what we are doing here.

But Section 508 dates back to 1961, a relic of the Cold War that’s been often ignored by previous administrations and doesn’t take into account the facts on the ground. And the facts show that although the military did, indeed, depose the “duly elected” President Mohamed Morsi, his own anti-democratic actions — firing judges, ramming through a new consitution, dangerously concentrating power — left democratic forces with little choice. The military had a huge swath of the Egyptian public on its side July 3 when the “coup” occurred, and it still does. As one analyst told the Forward after a recent visit to Egypt: “The atmosphere is like the U.S. on Sept. 12, 2001.”

Continuing foreign aid is a necessary investment, allowing the United States to retain what little leverage it has and maintaining a relationship with the Egyptian military that would be foolhardy to harm or discard. Perhaps not the purely right thing to do, but the wise thing to do.

That’s because Egypt is at a crossroads, and the unpleasant truth is that the United States can only modestly encourage the interim government to chose the best path. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood grossly overplayed their hand in attempting to foist their increasingly authoritarian mix of religion and politics onto a resistant public, but they still represent a sizable, passionate and organized segment of the Egyptian population, especially outside the urban areas. To seek to obliterate them as a political force — which some American neoconservatives demand and which the Egyptian military seems to be attempting — is impossible and destabilizing.

Instead of responding to the Brotherhood’s protests with live ammunition, the interim government must figure out a way to include at least some moderate elements from among the Brotherhood’s ranks. Either that, or the bloodshed will continue along with the risk that this movement, which has long eschewed terrorism, will join more radical Islamist efforts in Egypt and beyond.

To the degree possible, the Obama administration must continue to try to rein in the interim government’s violent tendencies while enabling it to maintain policies that are in America’s (and the Egyptian people’s) best interests: combating lawlessness in the Sinai, quietly upholding the peace treaty with Israel, opposing Islamic radicalism elsewhere in the region. It’s not a pretty compromise, but here, again, what is right must be eclipsed by what is wise. And what is possible.

For in the end, this isn’t about us. It’s not about America; it’s not even about Israel. It’s about the Egyptian people — indeed, the people of the restive Middle East — fitfully writing their own history.

In the short term, the obligation for the Obama administration is to maintain a steady presence while adjusting to this new, messier reality. No longer does power have just one address in Egypt, but multiple, competitive centers, and American diplomacy must reflect this new complexity. Our nation must broaden and deepen relationships with various sectors by supporting democratic institutions, promoting free speech and a free press, helping stabilize the battered economy — the fundamental public complaint against the last government and the one before it — and speaking out when civilians are falsely imprisoned or gunned down as they exercise their rights.

That’s the short term. In the long run, as Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress wrote on July 11, “It is clear that the U.S.-Egypt security relationship is in dire need of reform; this relationship has been on autopilot for years.” While a radical rethink may not be advisable in the midst of the current crisis, it can’t wait for some mythical calmer time, either.

Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the military has shown that it knows how to govern. Each can exert power, bluntly, sometimes violently, but that’s not the same as governing. Egypt needs and deserves to develop its own form of civic institutions and a vibrant political culture to tackle the enormous problems facing this populous, strategically important country.

“Of course, there are reasons to increasingly worry about where Egypt’s transition is headed and what it will ultimately produce,” Bassem Sabry, a political commentator, wrote on July 24. “There is still time and space, however, for positive outcomes. Egypt really needs to get this one right.” And American diplomacy must help make the the wise thing to do also the right thing to do.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.