U.S. foreign policy has resulted in many grand failures. Egypt has joined the pantheon.
That nation long has been a national wreck. Washington emphasized “stability” since Cairo backed U.S. policy and preserved peace with Israel.
Two years ago the people of Egypt finally had enough. Unfortunately, Hosni Mubarak’s fall loosed Islamist forces. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president and won approval of an Islamist-oriented constitution.
But President Morsi failed politically and economically. After just one year, millions of demonstrators demanded his ouster. Neither side was much interested in compromise, so the generals staged a coup.
The Obama administration stands helplessly in the middle, denounced by the Brotherhood and anti-Morsi protestors. Yet the administration still refuses to follow the law, which mandates an end to foreign aid in the event of a coup.
Although Morsi was responsible for his failures, he was obstructed at many turns. The opposition behaved little better, failing to organize effective political parties and develop political leaders.
The military’s coup cannot be disguised as something else. Imagine U.S. army units invading the Oval Office, arresting President Barack Obama and his senior aides, detaining hundreds of top Democratic Party officials, closing down MSNBC and other Democratic-leaning media, appointing Chief Justice John Roberts as caretaker president, and shooting pro-Obama protestors. Americans would call it a coup. Even conservatives would call it a coup.
Unfortunately, coups rarely yield democratic results, especially when staged against freely elected officials. A coup is by definition force and necessarily relies on repression. The result is more often extended dictatorship—Spain 1936, Iran 1953, Chile 1973, and Greece 1967, for instance—than renewed democracy.
Electoral defeat would have discredited the Brotherhood, but political martyrdom may revive the organization. And if the Brotherhood does not receive credible assurances that it will be allowed to fairly compete in the future, political Islam in Egypt and elsewhere may turn sharply against democracy. The nightmare scenario is Algeria, where a decade of civil war followed the suppression of Islamists who were poised to win a parliamentary election.
In any case, the military is no friend of secular liberals and the freedoms they hold dear. Nor are the generals likely to slink into the background after having been handed the keys to the kingdom. Indeed, the coup precedent will remain, ready for use against the next president who expands his powers, fails to fix the economy, and offends well-organized groups.
There is no good answer. Egypt likely faces more short-term violence and certainly faces long-term instability. Washington can do little. The administration should follow the law and cut off aid. Then, having long underwritten autocracy, the U.S. government should get out of the way.