Recent events in Egypt have put the Obama administration in a major quandary. While managing U.S. policy toward its longtime Arab ally has been a challenge for Washington policymakers throughout the political turmoil that has engulfed Egypt since early 2011, until eight weeks ago the circumstances had largely seemed manageable. But the military overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in early July and the very bloody crackdown against Morsi supporters in mid-August have brought about a crisis in U.S.-Egypt relations. As a result, American political leaders are being forced to again confront a situation where U.S. interests and values appear misaligned.
Morsi’s tenure was characterized by incompetence, political polarization, and increasing authoritarianism. He was, however, also Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, and there can be no doubt that his forcible removal from power by the Egyptian military was a coup. Unfortunately, some U.S. observers have refused to call the situation what it is. Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haas wrote that it would be “inaccurate” to describe Morsi’s ouster as a coup d’état and that foreigners should “refrain from describing what has transpired as a coup.” In an article in Foreign Policy written shortly after Morsi was deposed, Martin Indyk of Brookings (and now U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations) pointedly avoided using the word “coup,” instead describing Morsi’s overthrow as part of “the ongoing revolution in Egypt.”
A more defensible, if still misguided reaction has come from those who have justified the coup as an unpalatable but necessary step in Egypt’s political evolution. According to this perspective, Morsi’s removal gives Egypt a fresh start that will facilitate the establishment of a stable, inclusive democracy. In the New York Times, columnists David Brooks and Thomas Friedman both gave voice to this sentiment. Brooks wrote that the ends justified the means. “The important thing is to get [Islamists] out of power, even if it takes a coup. The goal is to weaken political Islam, by nearly any means.” Friedman, who cut his teeth covering the Middle East for the Times, argued that Egypt simply could not have survived rule by the Muslim Brotherhood for much longer. He acknowledged that it would have been preferable to see the Brotherhood defeated electorally, but added that “perfect is not on the menu anymore in Egypt.” While far from universal, this view has been put forth by a number of other commentators as well.
It is worth noting that sympathy for the coup has not been limited to American observers. Far from it. Egyptian liberals who have long advocated the establishment of a democratic government in Cairo have been some of the coup’s most enthusiastic supporters. These are the same activists who helped lead the fight to bring down Mubarak’s dictatorship in 2011 and subsequently allied themselves with the Brotherhood in demanding that the military relinquish power to an elected civilian government. During the year after Morsi took office, however, their opposition to his rule supplanted their commitment to democratic governance, though few of them would describe the situation that way. Many, like former U.N. diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, rationalized their support for the overthrow of a democratically elected leader by arguing that the massive anti-Morsi protests that took place prior to his removal give the coup popular legitimacy.
This argument is deeply problematic for the cause of Egyptian democracy, however. In his column, David Brooks emphasized that the democratic process is less important than the nature of the government that springs from it. He is wrong. It is not possible to destroy a democratic government in order to save it. It is one thing to try to bring down an autocrat like Mubarak through mass protest, when popular dissent has no other outlets, but when the leader has come to power through a democratic process it is dangerously close to mob rule. Even if Egypt’s new de facto leader, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, were a committed democrat – which does not at all seem to be the case – his decision to overthrow Morsi is deeply injurious to the democratic cause because of the precedent it sets. Any future elected government in Egypt will have to govern with the knowledge that the nation’s military is always waiting in the wings, ready to overturn the results at the ballot box. As Michele Dunne of the Atlantic Council noted in her recent testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “it would have been much more powerful and salutary for Egypt’s young democracy if Morsi had been defeated in an early election or referendum.”
The military’s bloody crackdown that began on August 14appeared to put an end to any hopes that Egypt would be returning to a democratic path anytime soon. Mostnews reports have put the resulting death toll between 600 and 1,000 – most of them Brotherhood supporters, though dozens of soldiers and police have been killed as well – since the government decided to clear out pro-Morsi protest sites in Cairo. The violence came after two prior mass killings by Egyptian security forces, on July 8 and again on July 27, that left more than 130 civilians dead. It also coincided with two ominous government announcements: The regime imposed martial law, supposedly to last no more than one month, and it named a set of 25 generals and Mubarak loyalists as Egypt’s new provincial governors. Since the crackdown began, the Egyptian military has made clear its intention to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force in Egypt, engaging in mass arrests of many of its leaders. There have been widespread reports that Brotherhood supporters have responded with violence of their own, notably against Egypt’s Coptic Christian population, though it is difficult to separate the regime’s anti-Brotherhood propaganda from fact at this point.
The Obama administration and other U.S. policymakers have struggled to figure out the best way to respond to these events. When Morsi took office in 2012, Washington grudgingly concluded that it was in U.S. interests to pursue a working relationship with his government, despite the Brotherhood’s longstanding hostility to the U.S. However, it also made sure to preserve the close relationship between the Pentagon and the Egyptian armed forces, particularly as opposition to Morsi within Egypt deepened in the face of the deteriorating economy and his efforts to amass greater power. In response to Morsi’s removal, President Obama stated that his administration was “deeply concerned” by the Egyptian military’s actions and urged its leaders “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process.” Notably, he did not call for Morsi’s reinstatement. For the most part, administration officials and many in Congress discussed the situation in terms of how Egypt should move forward rather than dwell on the circumstances of Morsi’s overthrow.
The central question facing policymakers in Washington since then has been whether to continue providing U.S. aid to Cairo. Since the U.S. brokered Egypt-Israeli peace agreement was signed in 1979, the United States has provided roughly $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt each year. In recent years annual U.S. economic aid has equaled about $250 million. (It used to be over $800 million per year but was cut in half by Congress in 1998, and then halved again in 2009 at the Bush administration’s request.) Federal law bars U.S. aid to any country that has experienced a coup d’état, a legal prohibition enacted by Congress as part of annual appropriations legislation every year since 1986, according to the Congressional Research Service. Believing that continued military aid is vital for maintaining strong relations between the United States and Egypt’s military, the Obama administration made every effort in the weeks following Morsi’s removal to avoid acknowledging that a coup had taken place in Egypt. It officially declined to make such a judgement in late July, declaring that it had no legal requirement to determine whether or not Morsi’s overthrow constituted a coup – implicitly acknowledging that it did. This announcement has not precluded a lively debate among U.S. policymakers and commentators about the issue, one that has transcended the usual ideological divide between left and right.
The mantra of those who want to maintain the flow of U.S. assistance is that it is gives the United States leverage over Egypt that would be lost if aid is withdrawn. Yet recent events have demonstrated that aid from Washington buys a lot less influence than many imagine. The threat of a U.S. cutoff did not prevent Egypt’s military from mounting the coup of July 3. In the weeks following Morsi’s ouster, the Obama administration bent over backward to continue U.S. aid to Egypt while strongly encouraging its military to move expeditiously toward reestablishing democracy, include the Muslim Brotherhood in the formation of a new government, and refrain from violence. It has done none of these things. At the beginning of August, Secretary of State John Kerry went so far as to say that a violent crackdown by Egyptian security forces would be “absolutely unacceptable” to the United States, adding, “It cannot happen.” His statement was ignored by Egypt’s military government. During the year and a half that the nation’s generals ruled the country following Mubarak’s resignation, the military went out of its way to blame the nation’s ills on the United States, a tactic it resumed after the coup. U.S. aid to Cairo is said to give Washington leverage, but it’s hard to see much evidence of it.
-- Richard Purcell