It is a truth universally acknowledged (my apologies to Jane Austen) that the removal of a country's elected leader by its military is deemed a military coup. So while I agree with President Obama's pragmatic refusal to so label the recent overthrow of Egypt's President Morsi, this finesse of terminology had better be a temporary equivocation.
Should the Egyptian military continue on its present path of jailing Muslim Brotherhood leaders and running roughshod on the nascent Egyptian democracy, however flawed it may be, President Obama should publicly begin calling what just took place in Egypt a "military-coup" and give the Egyptian military 48 hours to produce a road map to restore civilian rule. (That's the amount of time the Egyptian generals gave Morsi, the country's first elected leader, to work out a deal with the opposition and restore calm to Egyptian streets.) Failing which U.S. military aid to Egypt should be cut off.
Egypt is arguably the most important and influential country in the Middle East. Unlike the other countries that surround it, Egypt is not a creation of British-French colonial interests. It has been a nation-state for centuries. It is at once the largest and most populous country in the region, and a role-model for other Arab states. What happens in Egypt is hugely important for its neighbors, for the United States, and for the region's American allies. In sum Egypt is a vital U.S. national interest.
Beginning in the 1950s Egypt's nascent opposition including the Muslim Brotherhood was ruthlessly cut off at its knees by the Egyptian military. Its leaders were jailed and tortured. Many were killed. The United States turned a blind eye to this brutal suppression of dissent, and despite its publicly proclaimed principle of promoting democracy and the rule of law, was soon conducting business as usual with Egyptian strong men such as Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
What emerged from this mayhem was a virulent strain of embittered, frustrated Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood opposition that concluded the only way in which it would ever share power and reclaim Egyptian (and increasingly Arab) dignity was through the elimination of American influence in Egypt and the wider Middle East. Backing ruthless Arab strong-men may have produced a period of stability but it also produced al-Qaeda, bin Laden, 9/11, and the feeling of perpetual insecurity in America with the massive security-establishment that Americans now take for granted.
Is history about to repeat itself? We don't know that yet. But it surely will if the Egyptian military continues on its present course and destroys another generation of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who incidentally won more than half of the votes in the first ever freely contested Egyptian elections.
This is a defining moment for American relations with Egypt and the Middle East, and for American credibility in the Arab and wider Muslim world. It is not just Egypt's second chance, as some have termed it. It is also America's second chance, to begin, starting in Egypt, to restore American credibility in the region. The so called Arab-Spring will take years to flower. It must be allowed to fail and recover and perhaps even fail again, until the Egyptians discover their own way to balance the differing interests of their citizens.
A hundred years ago President Theodore Roosevelt spoke to the General Assembly of Cairo-University. Egypt was then, as it is today, in political turmoil as nationalist groups seethed under the rule of the British Crown, clamoring for freedom. The nationalists felt that the very act of deliverance from the Colonial power would lead to democratic rule and representative government. In his address the former American president spoke bluntly to the Egyptians about the need to think of a change to representative government as a process, not an act. In words (quoted by his biographer Edmund Morris) that have particular relevance today, Roosevelt warned: "The training of a nation to fit itself successfully to fulfill the duties of self-government is a matter, not of a decade or two, but of generations."
Roosevelt's century old advice to Egyptians is even more relevant today, but this time to Americans.