Understanding the Realities of Developments in Egypt

08/23/2013 12:16 pm ET | Updated Oct 23, 2013

Responses to the developments in Egypt from American politicians, pundits and the media have too often reflected a lack of sophisticated understanding of what is happening there and a naivete about the appropriate United States reaction. Here are some of the key elements that both describe what is really happening and provide some guidance as to the appropriate responses.

The first overriding factor is one I discussed in a Huffington Post blog published on Jan. 31, 2011 titled "The Outlook For Egypt And The Middle East Is Grim" as the protests were under way that unseated the presidency of Hosni Mubarak. I argued that any new government would not be able to solve the nation's economic problems and provide jobs for the millions of unemployed young people and price stability for food and other commodities. "The result of a failure of a democratic government to solve Egypt's woes," the article stated, " will result in another wave of demonstrations and violence."

Thus, when the Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party won the Egyptian election of Mohammad Morsi as President, an election it had originally promised it would not enter, the economic situation was already dire and the chances of success in solving the economic issues quite slim. Still, the Egyptian people and indeed the rest of the world were hoping that the Morsi government would focus all it efforts on repairing the economy and strengthening Egypt's financial condition. This would require the government to bring together opposing political and religious factions and to discipline its natural desire to expand its own power after years in opposition in favor of solving the nation's problems.

Sadly, that's not the course that Morsi and the Brotherhood chose. Instead of dedicating their every effort to bringing the country together and improving the economy, they took action to consolidate and expand the Brotherhood power and to impose its religious beliefs on the nation. Thus, they sought to pack a constitutional committee with Islamists and pushed through other electoral laws without consent, while failing to restrain sectarian hatred against other Muslim minorities and Christians. The public anger at these actions was reflected in the fact that more than 20 million people reportedly signed a petition for a referendum on the presidency.

During this period, the Egyptian military was looking for the best response to protect its interests. Initially reacting to the will of the Egyptian public, the military allowed the Mubarak regime to fall. When Morsi was elected president, the military apparently agreed to a deal where they subordinated their position to the government, although the military still retained its extensive economic holdings. I can't say whether the military would have stuck to that deal under other circumstances, but the situation did change. The Morsi government took the actions noted above to expand its power, suggesting that it had no intention of ever sharing power or relinquishing it in a future election. It is no surprise that the military saw these actions as a serious threat. Perhaps the Egyptian generals looked at the somewhat parallel developments in Turkey, where an Islamist party, friendly to the Brotherhood, won an election and took control of the government, which until then had been controlled by its military establishment. In June, the Turkish government arrested 49 senior generals and other military leaders, charging them with conspiring to overthrow the government. Egyptian generals watching that train of events at the same time that the Brotherhood was seeking to expand its power, might well see themselves threatened. Then, there began a new series of widespread public protests against the Morsi government that reflected not only the public's unhappiness with the failure of the government to solve the economic problems but a rebellion against the government's political moves toward gaining power and imposing more religious controls. The military now had the support from the majority of the people for action to overthrow a government it already feared. It was an opportunity it would not let pass.

The violent attacks on the Brotherhood and its supporters and their equally violent response of killing police and destroying churches has turned the conflict into a form of religious war. In its intensity, victimhood and even martyrdom it has many of the same characteristics as the Sunni-Shia struggle in other parts of the Arab world such as Iraq and Syria. As in those conflicts, other Arab state have joined sides -- with the Saudis and Kuwaitis committing huge sums -- $12 billion -- to Egypt in a form of support for the generals and Turkey and Qatar supporting the Brotherhood.

In this very complex framework, the Obama administration has been trying to figure out what to do while members of Congress and some in the media call for various courses of action. It should be clear by now that the United States has no ability to resolve this intense conflict. The time is long gone when the generals will invite the Islamists to join in any governing confederation and if they did, the Brothers would not join them. To think that the United States has real leverage that it can exercise by withholding the $1.3 billion in aid agreed upon in support of the Camp David accord between Egypt and Israel, or by withholding the sale of F-16 planes or other weapons, is simply missing the seriousness of the conflict and the relative unimportance of the leverage. Part of the $1.3 billion is used to buy arms manufactured by American military suppliers. Egypt has no immediate need for these arms and certainly not for F-16's. There is no military threat to Egypt where it can use F-16s. Indeed, for some time our own government has been trying to convince the Egyptian military to use the funding for other military uses. Moreover, since the supply chain requires early orders for some of that equipment, the United States will be on the hook for some of those arms if the deal with Egypt does not continue.

Some people argue that even if the United States has no leverage and withholding aid will not change the situation, we should nevertheless take those steps in order to demonstrate to the Egyptian people that we support democracy and oppose the actions of the generals in overthrowing the Morsi government. Perhaps this thinking motivated the European Union, which decided to suspend exports of weapons and some goods to Egypt that could be used for internal repression but not to halt aid programs for fear of hurting ordinary Egyptians. That decision may allow the Europeans to feel good but it will have no effect in changing the situation. Nor, do I believe that any action we take will influence how the Egyptian people view us. At present both sides are blaming America for supporting the other side and for whatever other ills they can lay upon us, on Israel and the West. We should have learned by now that nothing we do will change the perception of the Egyptian public.

Finally, it is important that the United States maintain a relationship with the Egyptian military even if we disapprove of their actions. For one thing, that is the only way we will have any influence on Egyptian conduct. We should use whatever influence we have to encourage an end to the violence, an effort to bring the parties together and some movement in the direction of a democratic process, knowing that our influence is very limited and the obstacles to success very large. We should also continue our relationship with the military since they are aligned with those connected to our interests in the region -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Israel.

There is no benefit to supporting the Brotherhood -- the reality is that the Brotherhood will not regain power. In the end, one can only hope that some form of reason prevails and the violence ends, so that the Egyptian people and its government can get back to facing the very difficult problems of creating a viable economy that will provide its 85 million people with a decent life.