Obama's Bad Bet on the Egyptian Military

Egypt's political chasm continues to widen following the military's ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, who, despite his many flaws and blunders, was the only democratically elected president in the country's history.

On one side is a curious amalgam: secularists (some democrats, some not), liberals, Coptic Christians and remnants of Hosni Mubarak's regime, particularly from the police, the military and the judiciary.

On the other stands Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, now being joined at the barricades by other Islamists, including hard-line Salafists from the Al-Nour party, who had stood with Egypt's military leader, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, when he announced Morsi's removal on July 3.

More ominously, Egypt's political and cultural schism has segued into a bloodletting that shows no signs of ending. Scores of protesters have been killed -- most shot by the security services -- the wounds to the head and chest suggesting that the police had more than crowd control in mind. Many more people have been injured.

Morsi remains in detention, although the European Union's foreign policy czar, Catherine Ashton, was allowed to see him on Tuesday; though she, a seasoned diplomat, declined to divulge what he had told her, supposedly because she might get it wrong. (Given this odd explanation, one wonders whether the generals defined the ground rules for her visit.) Initially, the justification for holding Morsi was that it was for his own safety (though even his family was unable to see him); now he's been charged with conspiring with the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas.

Morsi's detention, along with the arrest of other senior Brotherhood leaders and the shutting down of the movement's media, indicates that the military leadership's real motive is to paralyze the party, perhaps even to put it out of business.

Enraged Brotherhood supporters have swarmed the streets, their sit-ins and marches galvanized by the fervor of Ramadan.

Brotherhood moderates -- the movement is not a monolith -- are rethinking their faith in electoral politics. The radicals, for their part, are proclaiming that it was folly to believe in the first place that the army or the United States would ever let an Islamist government, even an elected one, rule. Egypt's prospects for peace, let alone democracy, will remain poor if the latter assessment prevails. On the other side, the Brotherhood's staunchest enemies depict it as a shari'a-driven group with dictatorial inclinations that has no place in politics.

So deep is the mutual suspicion, so numerous the stereotypes and conspiracy theories, that even the minimal trust required to find a compromise is lacking.

The military has sought to camouflage its coup by creating a civilian leadership. The interim president is a Mubarak-era judge, Adly Mansour, who was appointed president of the Constitutional Court by Morsi. The Vice President is Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Commission, a Nobel Prize winner and a man with great cachet in Europe and America. ElBaradei embodies Egyptian liberals' dicey bet that the army actually favors a true democracy (which requires that the military be under civilian control) and will head to the barracks once it's established. Given the role that the army has played in Egypt's politics over the past 60 years they are likely to be disappointed.

The new government cannot act on any issue of any significance without the military brass' blessing. The anti-Morsi crowds who wave General El-Sisi's pictures, hail him as a hero and chant his name know this -- so do most other Egyptians, regardless of their politics. On this a divided country can agree.

By contrast, the Obama administration has engaged in wondrous verbal contortions to eschew uttering the four-letter word that truth demands: coup.

The situation is in the eye of the beholder; the military is not running the country, civilians are; we don't want to parse words; Egypt is undergoing a difficult transition and all sides should avoid violence. Such are the obfuscations and bromides offered up by the White House.

America's claim to champion democratic principles is already doubted in the Middle East, not least of all because its longtime allies have been the likes of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the authoritarian Egyptian regimes of Mubarak and his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. This exalted self-representation will elicit even more cynicism now. (Consider this: Would Washington have hesitated to condemn outright an unfriendly government, say Iran or the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez, that had taken measures resembling what Egypt's security services have done since July 3?)

Well, you might say, forget starry-eyed idealism; practice pragmatism, Realpolitik even. But the United States can't credibly present itself as the world's premier defender and promoter of democracy and then revert, when convenient, to Machiavellian politics. Either approach is defensible on its own terms; the combination will rightly be seen as incoherent.

Besides, has Washington's reaction brought about the results a realist would want? Having heard little more than platitudes and entreaties from the administration (and most of Congress), the men who are really calling the shots in Egypt have no reason to reconsider their repression. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's phone calls to General Sisi have had no discernible effect; nor have Secretary of State John Kerry's lofty calls for calm, as the crackdown continues unabated. On Wednesday, as the crisis escalated, Sisi, who presents himself as above politics, called on the anti-Morsi opposition to take to the streets to show its support for the regime's offensive against the Muslim Brotherhood.

On July 24, the Obama administration finally announced that it would delay the scheduled delivery of fighter jets to Cairo, and it continues to whisper that sanctions remain an option. But given Washington's feckless behavior, Egypt's hardnosed generals aren't going to lie awake worrying that such an "option" will be exercised.

Several experts have urged Washington to work with the generals and avoid punitive actions, especially an arms cutoff, which they claim will deprive Washington of all leverage. But three weeks into this crisis, is there any real evidence to suggest that the Obama administration holds sway over the Egyptian military?

Another argument along these lines is that the Egyptian military would react negatively to sanctions by neglecting the Sinai front, which would then become unstable, reducing whatever inclination Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have to make major concessions in the current Israel-Palestinians talks. But Egypt's military has strongly backed the peace with Israel ever since the Camp David Accords were forged under President Carter in 1978. And it has nothing to gain, and much to lose, by permitting the Sinai to become a redoubt for extremists. General Sisi is not one to sever his nose to spite his face.

As for the Israel-Palestinians peace talks, if they fail it will be for other reasons: the status of Jerusalem, the definition of mutually acceptable borders, the future and location of Israeli settlements and control over holy sites. The Sinai will be a sideshow.

Finally, there's the claim that getting tough with the military will reinforce Egyptians' belief that Washington backs the Brotherhood. This perception, to the extent that it exists, is preposterous given the American governments' fulsome, decades-long support of Mubarak's authoritarian regime, which used an iron hand against the Brotherhood. Besides, it's silly to shape American foreign policy in order to deflate zany ideas, which are abundant, here and in the world beyond.

Ultimately, Egyptians will -- and should -- decide what happens in their country and what sort of government it should have. What's worrisome is the uncertainty over how they will do so -- through more bloodshed or reconciliation. Right now, the chances for peace aren't very good; and they will get worse if the generals continue to use force and proceed to dismantle the Brotherhood. If what Egypt's military leaders really want is to foster a settlement and help create a political order that has more legitimacy and is more democratic, they are going about it in a strange manner -- and Washington's views seem not to matter to them. So much for "engagement."

This essay first appeared in Real Clear World, August 2, 2013. It is cross-posted here with the permission of RCW.