03/21/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated May 21, 2013

The Egyptian Trick Box

Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi and his cohorts are revealing their true character and Egyptians don't like what they see. Morsi is fast draining the Muslim Brotherhood of political credibility, in Egypt and across the region. For years people wondered whether it would honor professed promises to embrace democratic pluralism and religious tolerance.

Many viewed Egypt's Brotherhood as more liberal than some of its brethren. Its conduct thus arguably provides a bellwether for deciphering the true agendas of neighboring Brotherhoods.

The indicators augur poorly for democratic reformers. The good news is that that the administrative court has suspended the Parliamentary elections that Morsi had scheduled for April. The bad news is that what Morsi's thinking in issuing a decree for the election reveals further about who and what he is.

The election law had drawn wide criticism as unfairly biased towards his Freedom and Justice Party and riddled with unconstitutional defects. Clearly, Morsi wanted quick elections in hopes of quelling the opposition before could it properly organize to effectively contest his power.

The development follows Morsi's clumsy strong-arm tactics to suppress dissent that have killed dozens. It's telling that when police outrageously stripped then beat a protestor in a well-publicized incident, neither Morsi nor anyone in his inner circle uttered a peep of regret. What conclusions do these actions suggest?

For starters, Morsi is confirming the fears of those who have warned that the Muslim Brotherhood is authoritarian and unwilling to tolerate much less foster open debate or democratic processes. It is a lesson as one considers the current and future behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Turkey, and other neighbors.

If he persists on his current course, Morsi's behavior will also force President Obama to choose between throwing his support to demonstrators bent on toppling or reining in an authoritarian leader with whom the U.S. had or is forging a working relationship. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's ham-fisted politics forced a similar dilemma: stand by long-time U.S. ally (for whom true democracy was just a buzzword) or support angry young dissenters who clamored for an end to a regime driven by a culture of force and favors and a new one that was responsible and accountable.

Morsi lacks Mubarak's history of friendship with the U.S. or warmth towards it. Still, the current protests have re-ignited the same issues that Mubarak's behavior presented: on which side should the U.S. stand? Apparently the U.S. Administration felt the Muslim Brotherhood leader was helpful in mediating a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinians. Senator John Kerry announced $250 million in new aid, and the U.S. has approved the sale of sixteen F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian military, a signal that the close bond between the two militaries continues. As protests against Morsi's heavy-handed, anti-democratic policies intensify, where will the U.S. come down?

Judging that history favored those opposed to dictatorship and corruption, Obama tilted against Mubarak. His decision had an impact: the military showed Mubarak the door. On-lookers envisioned a shift from police state to democracy in the land of the Pharaohs. Democracy did arrive through elections but the outcome rightly rattled those who favor political pluralism and religious tolerance.

Islamists won control of Parliament and the presidency. Today, it's the Muslim Brotherhood that calls the shots from behind the scenes, which Morsi dutifully heeds. No Brotherhood voices have spoken up against Morsi's effort to rule by fiat, failure to assure the rights of political or religious minorities, or his use of the police to repress dissent. Instead, Morsi adviser Fathi Shihab-Eddim, responsible for appointing the editors of all state-run newspapers, is using the bully pulpit to call the Holocaust a hoax cooked up by the U.S. to justify attacking Germany and using the atomic bomb against the Japanese. Meanwhile, reports are surfacing that Qatar is giving Hamas $250 million to protect Morsi's life and political fortunes.

One can plausibly argue that only police and military tolerance or support for his Presidency keeps him in power. The broader lesson is that a sure-fire way to open the eyes of people to the realities of Islamist political power is to let them live under its rule. It's no accident that arguably the most pro-American population in the Middle East lives in Iran. Iranians know the truth about the Mullahs and their thugs like the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

What should the U.S. do? President Obama made the correct decision to throw his support behind democracy protestors. The anti-Morsi forces are disorganized, they bicker, and thus unlikely to unify against Morsi. But we should not keep our silence as Morsi forces a constitution down the throats of Egyptians that could enshrine religious and political intolerance, or the same use of police to beat democracy protestors. We have leverage. It resides partly in the aid and through the military-to-military relationships that exist between the two nations. Egypt's military desires and needs that aid.

No less vital, Morsi's economic woes trap him. The local currency is ailing, growth is subdued, and Morsi does seem to grasp the political debacle presented by the choice of borrowing money or raising taxes. Aid from Gulf nations seems unlikely to carry him through the crisis. That leaves the International Monetary Fund, from whom he hopes to borrow $4.8 billion to keep the economy afloat. Make no mistake. The U.S. can influence whether that loan is extended and the terms of the loan.

Morsi makes a valid point that he was democratically elected. But Egypt occupies far too important a position in the region to fail because Morsi refuses or fails to grasp the need to govern inclusively and democratically. It's time for the U.S. to make its influence felt in favor of democracy. We should not stand by silently while pro-democracy protestors are murdered and political and religious intolerance is enshrined in a new culture molded by a dictatorial Muslim Brotherhood. Delay increases the difficulty of the task. It is time to act, now. Good statecraft argues for doing so first behind the scenes. Should that fail to produce immediate and positive action, our interests and our values mandate that we stand up and speak out forcefully and unequivocally. Morsi may feel we need him. As with much of what he has so far done, he perceives reality backwards.

James P. Farwell has advised the US Department of Defense, is an expert on political issues in the Middle East and author of a new book, Persuasion & Power (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012). Darby Arakelian is a former CIA Officer and national security expert. The opinions expressed are their own and not that of the US Government, or its departments or agencies.