The Obama administration’s decision to cancel war games with the Egyptian army in the aftermath of widespread violence by the Egyptian military against its own people has been properly criticized as a gesture too little and too late. Perhaps Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi would have taken U.S. appeals for restraint more to heart if a credible threat to Egypt’s nearly $1.6 billion annual aid package had been established from the start. Now sources within the administration say the aid has been temporarily, albeit “privately,” suspended. But another episode of state-initiated violence should prompt the Obama administration to cut off aid—this time publicly. Its restoration should then be linked to specific benchmarks toward credible and inclusive civilian rule.
Rather than temper its responses to unrest in the streets, the Egyptian military is pressing Western media to cease “supporting terrorism” by publishing accounts of the brutality of its security forces. It depicts the Muslim Brotherhood as incorrigible terrorists and fanatics. The military has been assisted in this public relations offensive by Brotherhood members who fit the profile. Vicious attacks on scores of Coptic and Catholic churches, schools and other facilities have left many in a state of near or utter ruin. The world community must demand that the interim government attend to its proper duty to protect the religious minority communities that have become the targets of retaliatory attacks.
It is clear now that the disproportionate use of force by the Egyptian military has been deliberately provocative. Many of the participants at what had been largely peaceful protests in Cairo were completely at the mercy of their fellow Egyptians in the security forces. They were shown little of that mercy, however; hundreds, perhaps even thousands, have died since a calculated decision was made within the interim government to put an end to the Brotherhood’s role in Egyptian society. This seems an unwholesome and futile ambition.
As in Syria, the Obama administration now finds itself in a no-win situation. Certainly no one can desire that repressive, intolerant factions within the Brotherhood should ascend to a position of power in Egypt. But neither can a mature democratic society like the United States stand by without protest before a resurgent authoritarianism. While the Arab Spring unfolded before an astonished world over the last three years, it has become generally accepted among geopolitical policymakers that relying on brute authoritarianism to “contain” Islamic expression is a faulty, even immoral strategy.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not some fringe group that the army wishes to neutralize, but a social force representing a significant percentage of the Egyptian people, whose wishes and perspectives, whether or not they are palatable to Western notions, must somehow be included in a new Egypt. An authoritarian campaign to suppress such a large portion of Egypt’s body politic will ultimately generate as much, if not more, extremism than it arrogantly promises to control.
Some may argue that the U.S. government should continue military aid to maintain whatever influence the United States retains in “restraining” the hand of the military. But the United States has been down the path of half-measured meddling and hand-holding of authoritarian regimes before. Over the long-term, the United States only succeeds in muddying its own reputation and credibility by “engagement” with despotism.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the interim vice president of Egypt who resigned in protest after the military crackdown, has chosen a course of action that the United States should emulate. ElBaradei has refused to participate directly any longer with a regime that bulldozed its own legitimacy in Cairo; nor is it likely that he will be found any time soon supping with Muslim extremists. ElBaradei will do what he can to continue to breathe life into a third force in Egyptian life, one that renounces brute authoritarianism, whether wielded by military autocrats or Islamic fantasists. While keeping lines of communication open to all parties, the United States should devote its energies similarly to supporting civil society in Egypt, a positive counterforce against those who are seeking to restore either military rule or the seventh century along the Nile.
Meanwhile, the United States, the European Community and the United Nations should be preparing a “responsibility to protect” strategy to defend the vulnerable in Egypt, whether that means protecting Muslims from a restoration of Egyptian authoritarianism or Coptic Christians and other religious minorities and secularists from a resurgent Muslim power that may yet displace the military autocrats who hold the field today.