Egypt at the Crossroads


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Published August 02, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
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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.

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