Shadow Government

Getting Egypt Right This Time

In the aftermath of the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsy, much of the debate in Washington has focused on the question of U.S. aid. Should the United States call the military's action a coup and suspend aid as demanded by the law, or not? The answer has been hotly debated, with prominent analysts and former officials coming down on either side.

But the question itself is the wrong one, and the narrow focus on U.S. aid is misplaced. As is the case with the long debate on arming the opposition and setting up a no-fly zone in Syria, it is generally misguided in foreign policy to zero in on and debate a specific tactic in the absence of any clear sense of one's objective or strategy for achieving it.

In the case of Egypt, the United States has a number of interests at play, but the one most relevant to current events is regional stability. For Egypt to play a positive role in maintaining the stability of the region, it must not only pursue stabilizing foreign policies -- such as maintaining its peace treaty with Israel and working to counter terrorism and nuclear proliferation -- but it must also be stable domestically. 

Morsy seemed willing, at least initially, to pursue stabilizing foreign policies; however, his majoritarian -- and increasingly authoritarian -- approach to governing further destabilized Egypt rather than stabilizing it. At a moment when Egyptians needed their best and brightest to coalesce around principles and plans to lead their country out of political and economic crisis, Morsy sought to institutionalize Islamist ideology and amass as much power as possible for his own movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, to the exclusion of others.

The Egyptian military's solution to Morsy's misrule, however, offers little consolation to U.S. policymakers. Not only does it appear to portend increased violence, since the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists will not simply acquiesce or fade away, but the disparate groups that came together to oust Morsy do not appear to have any clearer plan than he did for pulling post-Mubarak Egypt out of its state of persistent and deepening crisis. 

Washington would have preferred that Morsy be removed -- or his power diluted -- through a political power-sharing deal, which would have avoided the first problem by keeping the Brotherhood in politics and off the streets, and which would have potentially helped address the second. The challenge for U.S. policymakers now is to achieve the result that Barack Obama's administration seemed to prefer before June 30 -- a coalition government focused on alleviating Egypt's crisis -- against the backdrop of a military intervention and escalating violence. 

In practical terms, this requires a quick transition from military rule to a civilian government, though not necessarily an elected one at first. To avoid a repeat of the mistakes and turbulence of Morsy's tenure, the United States should emphasize pluralism and respect for human rights; the building of democratic institutions, especially a constitution conforming to broad principles to which most Egyptians can agree, and the development of political parties; and the development of a plan for resolving the economic crisis -- rather than calling for immediate elections. Elections are necessary but, as Morsy so clearly demonstrated, not sufficient to make a democracy.

This brings one back to the question of U.S. military assistance to Egypt. While significant at $1.3 billion, this assistance does not provide the United States with much leverage over the Egyptian military. This was vividly illustrated over the past week, during which Egypt's generals disregarded the Obama administration's explicit and public warning not to oust Morsy. 

While both Egypt and the United States reap benefits from their military relationship, the logic of providing Cairo with a steady stream of tanks and jets has eroded as the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli wars have faded into history. It may make sense to reconfigure and renegotiate that relationship, but the United States should be under no illusions that threatening to do so will compel Egypt's generals to do what it asks.

What does appear to concern Egypt's military and its allies, however, is the stigma that accompanies the "coup" designation, with its strong connotation of illegitimacy. If the United States makes such a designation, it is reasonable to expect that others will follow, compromising whatever government succeeds Morsy's. This provides Washington with leverage, but it will largely disappear once a determination is made. Thus, the best course of action is to defer the decision temporarily, giving the military and its allies time and incentive to act responsibly.

The other major source of leverage that the United States should seek to employ is international assistance. The economic disaster that loomed prior to Morsy's ouster continues to hang over Egypt, threatening the success of any government, however it is constituted. To emerge successfully from this crisis, Egypt will require external financing in the form of both official assistance and private investment. While U.S. aid is too small to make much of a difference to Egypt's fortunes, the sum total of assistance that can be offered by America's allies is far more significant. 

To credibly put these two incentives -- international legitimacy and international aid -- on the table, Washington will need to make a major push to line up the support of allies within the region and outside it. The most skeptical may be America's Persian Gulf allies, most of which welcome Morsy's fall, and all of which have been displeased with U.S. policy, not only toward Egypt but toward other regional issues. Getting these allies on board will require overcoming a perception of U.S. passivity and inconstancy and demonstrating a willingness to act decisively not just on this issue, but also on others of vital importance to them, such as Syria and Iran.

In Egypt, the United States has been given a second chance it hoped not to require. To make the most of it, American policymakers should view it not just as a chance to revisit U.S. policy toward Egypt, but to reassert American leadership in the Middle East.

ASIT KUMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The Long, Slow, Chaotic Process of Egypt's Transition

There are worse things than a coup. For example, there is Egypt under the sway of a Muslim Brotherhood government bent on implementing an Iranian-style regime and animated by a president's inexperience, incompetence, and emotional insecurity. I realize I'm practicing psychology without a license on that last one, but it does appear Mohamed Morsy's stubbornness over the last year stems from a desperate need to assert himself and put himself beyond the criticism of his Salafi partners. It is hard to tell whether that is more of a personal need or a political one, but suffice it to say, he is no Nelson Mandela.

What has happened in Egypt over the last two and a half years through today (and it will continue for a good while) is what it looks like when a Muslim-majority nation-state with no history of self-government actually tries to democratize. There likely will be only two effective and organized players on the field: the military and the predominant religio-political (or is that the politico-religious) organization. If there will be order -- democratic or otherwise -- it will be because these two battle it out and one wins and the other loses; the West will hope that the winner promotes democracy. It is not pretty, it takes a long time, and there are the inevitable fits and starts. And if there is not a military that can stand apart from the political scrambling, you have Gaza. Some would argue that Egypt today, with all its problems, is in far better shape than Gaza, which is now in its seventh year of Hamas misrule.

Let's be clear: No matter what blame we assign to the military or the "fecklessness" of the Egyptian people, Morsy's choices made everything worse and made himself part of the problem. He was such a terrible president that he lost apparently not only some of his own Islamist voters but also the support of some leaders in his own party. The Muslim Brotherhood began to lose credibility and the reserve of trust that comes with that credibility the moment it ran a candidate for president. It didn't help that the man the Muslim Brotherhood ran was known as the movement's "spare tire." Once they achieved the presidency with only the barest of majorities, they did nothing to solve the problems Egyptians care about most: the economy and crime. To make matters worse, they offended the huge and ever-growing number of better-educated, better-connected, and younger Egyptians who having tasted their political power are not willing to give it up. By claiming autocratic powers for himself, ramming a radical sharia-based constitution through a parliament whose election lacked public support, removing members of the judiciary, and appointing provincial governors without consultations, he sowed the seeds of an uprising. At this point, he'd have no one to turn to in order to keep his government in power but the military -- which he had humiliated as one of his first acts in power.

So, Egypt is ugly right now (it was never going to be a pretty transition to democracy), but it didn't have to be this ugly: That's Morsy's fault. The military, along with various members of the opposition, has a chance to do what Morsy and the Brotherhood refused to do: govern Egypt in the interests of all Egyptians. It was telling to see the different religious and secular elements present at Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's announcement of the military's "path forward."

Many pundits have been questioning the efficacy and desirability of the Arab Spring and democracy support generally, and they accuse democracy supporters of hypocrisy if they accept the inevitability of a coup during these transitions. But this criticism sounds like the typical criticism leveled by those who are still attacking George W. Bush (from the left as well as the right) and from those who think democracy is unachievable for some peoples. I'll ignore the politics-based criticism for now and simply note as a refutation to all those who say that Arabs can't have a democracy: For the first time in history, and for over two years, it is the Egyptian people who have been deciding the fate of their country, and that's a good start. They are doing so the only way they can in their circumstances that for now includes a risky role for the military. Give them a break: It isn't Sweden, and there are no Mandelas or Washingtons.

MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images