Startling events unfolded this week in Egypt. First, millions of protesters took to the streets to voice their opposition to Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Then the army put him on notice: sort out the mess within 48 hours or face the imposition of the military's own roadmap for Egypt's future. With so much tumult, it would be natural for U.S. policymakers to be perplexed as they watch this play out.
They would be wise to take it as a wake-up call. Whatever the massive protests against Morsi's one year old presidency may come to mean, they are a sure sign that Egypt's transition to democracy has derailed. That is a big problem for the Egyptian people, and also for the United States.
There have been indications that Egypt has not been moving in a democratic direction for some time - certainly since November 2012 when President Morsi rammed through a deeply flawed constitution, drafted by a constituent assembly from which virtually all opposition and independent members had resigned, and then approved by an unconvincing vote in a referendum in which just over 20% of the electorate voted in favor.
Since then, Morsi has increasingly governed as an authoritarian. He has packed the government with his own supporters from the Muslim Brotherhood, undermined the judiciary, intimidated the press, demonized the opposition, staged an all-out assault on independent civil society organizations, and inflamed sectarian tensions to consolidate his own political base.
It has not helped that Morsi's government has failed to deal with the many serious problems Egypt faces, including an economic crisis spiraling out of control, a precipitous decline in public security, and a fuel shortage. Any government would be challenged by the magnitude and severity of the crises confronting Egypt.
But these problems are not what brought people out on to the streets in unprecedented numbers this week. Rather, it is the that President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have shown that they care more about consolidating their own power than putting into place a viable program for governing the country.
Throughout this derailment of Egypt's transition, the U.S. government has managed to appear both disengaged from the brewing crisis of Egypt's stalled transition and curiously deferential to President Morsi's democratic legitimacy, conferred on him in a wafer thin run-off victory against a representative of the discredited Mubarak regime. The rushed elections, which gave opposition candidates little time to organize, were nominally democratic, but were hardly a mandate for Morsi to disregard the opposition. Many voters held their noses and opted for the less-objectionable of two unsavory candidates.
The United States accepted the elections and has been oddly muted since.
Its policy has been so inscrutable that many in Egypt have come to assume that the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood have formed a covert alliance to continue the long-standing U.S. policy of backing authoritarian rule in Egypt in exchange for cooperation on Israel and counterterrorism. As a sign of this, some of the millions of demonstrators this weekend were not only carrying placards calling on President Morsi to step down, there were also posters calling for U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson to go away.
Many Egyptians have lost faith that the United States wishes to be a partner with the Egyptian people in building a new democratic state. Unsurprisingly, anti-American feeling in Egypt has reached new highs.
The dangerous stand-off between President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and millions of Egyptians opposed to him, should be a wakeup call for those determining U.S. policy towards Egypt. Making encouraging noises about democratic transition, but doing little or nothing to bring that desirable, but difficult, outcome to fruition has failed and must come to an end.
The Egyptian presidency is already looking for "continued American support" in order to avert a "military coup." The U.S. government should avoid taking sides in Egypt's internal political battles, but it should be very clear that it stands for the rule of law, non-violence and the universal values of human rights. It should not do anything to indicate support for Morsi unless he immediately demonstrates a genuine commitment to building a consensus with his political opponents by agreeing to re-open negotiations on amendments to the constitution, to forming a government of national unity, and to sharing his own presidential powers with political rivals.
If no agreement is reached and the military does step in to impose its road map, the United States should make clear that it is not in the business of supporting a military coup. There can be no return to the unlamented 16-month of rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The military must quickly appoint a ruling civilian council that reflects the breadth of Egyptian political opinion, institute a process to reform the constitution - a process that should strip the military of the immunities it granted itself under the constitution in place now - and set a credible timetable for the holding of new elections for the People's Assembly and the presidency.
The Obama Administration ignored the will of Congress by continuing military assistance to Egypt with a national security waiver despite ongoing human rights violations; it now has a responsibility to ensure that the military does not return to its old practices of rounding up protesters and trying them in military courts, or subjecting women protesters to sexual assault under the guise of "virginity tests."
The United States can no longer sit back and assume that a democratic transition in Egypt will happen smoothly of its own accord. It must be much more proactive in supporting a democratic Egypt in which the rights of all Egyptians are protected.