Remember Cairo?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

With the world focused on the crisis in Syria and the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian détente, the fact that Egypt’s political situation is going from bad to worse has flown under the political radar. Much to the relief of the generals in Cairo — and likely also some members of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy team — the United States appears to be kicking another difficult regional policy decision down the road.

This is a mistake. By countenancing the July 3 coup and the military’s subsequent crackdown on the supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, the United States may be helping to sow seeds that could ripen into a costly and deeply destabilizing insurgency for years to come.

The Obama administration responded to the military crackdown, which resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, with the diplomatic equivalent of a few light raps on the knuckles of Egypt’s generals. It canceled joint military exercises with Egypt and announced that the White House’s national security staff would begin a comprehensive review of bilateral aid. Since late August, a recommendation to suspend the majority of U.S. military assistance to Cairo has been sitting with the president. Meanwhile, Egyptian security forces have re-escalated their campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, raiding the movement’s strongholds and arresting the few remaining senior Brotherhood figures not already in custody.

The Obama administration knows that things are not going well in Egypt. U.S. officials — privately and rather halfheartedly — tried to walk back Secretary of State John Kerry’s bizarre claim that Egypt’s military leaders were “restoring democracy” and have also delayed delivery of F-16 fighters to Egypt. However, Washington’s overall response to the undoing of Egypt’s democratic process has not come close to matching the gravity of the crisis.

The Obama administration’s anemic response is indicative of the larger strategic drift of America’s response to the 2011 Arab uprisings. In the immediate aftermath of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama admitted that the United States had not pushed hard enough for democracy in the Arab world, and he promised a new way of doing business in the region. At arguably every major juncture since then, however, whenever Washington has had the opportunity to demonstrate its support for genuine democracy in Egypt, it has instead opted for some version of the “authoritarian bargain” that characterized U.S. regional policy for decades.

Obama’s address at the United Nations last week on Sept. 24 seemed to confirm the reality of American policy. In the world-weary tones that have come to define his speeches, Obama acknowledged in unusually explicit terms that democracy was secondary to Middle East policy and that security concerns and “core interests” would take precedence.

The Obama administration appears to be hoping that the Egyptian military, despite its brutality — or perhaps because of it — will provide a modicum of stability. This risks repeating the same mistakes of the pre-Arab Spring era: While a sense of calm has returned to parts of Cairo, the specter of renewed violence still looms large. An insurgency is gathering pace in the Sinai Peninsula, with a sharp increase in attacks on security personnel after Morsy’s ouster. Meanwhile, the state has lost control of some pro-Morsy strongholds, requiring the use of overwhelming force in the towns of Dalga and Kerdasa in an attempt to regain its authority.

These flare-ups may prove to be only an initial taste of what’s to come. The Algerian civil war, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands, offers a cautionary note: The conflict spiraled into full-scale violence not right after the military’s January 1992 coup, but at least seven months later.

To make matters worse, the new Egyptian government does not appear to aspire to a return to the stagnant ancien régime, but something worse and more dangerous. Unlike Hosni Mubarak’s regime — which tolerated a certain level of dissent in parliament and the media — this new political order is aiming for a far more all-encompassing grip on power, where even the mildest criticisms of the Egyptian Army can lead one to be branded a traitor. The sort of repression we are seeing today — including four mass killings over the summer, one of which was the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history — will have lasting consequences for Egyptian society. As the New York Times reported recently, “Neighbors have turned against one another and families have been torn apart” by political divisions.

With every passing week, Egypt’s authoritarian order entrenches itself even further. On Sept. 23, Egypt’s judiciary took yet another dangerous step, banning not just the Muslim Brotherhood but “all the activities that it participates in and any organization derived from it,” as the presiding judge put it. Before this decision, there was the possibility that, while the Brotherhood would be dissolved, its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, might be permitted to operate. This now seems increasingly unlikely.

Instead of waiting for any number of negative scenarios to become a reality, the United States needs to move away from ad hoc crisis management and fundamentally shift its policy on Egypt.

There are no quick fixes, but that is no excuse for doing nothing.

First, the United States should suspend its military aid to Cairo. It should also outline the conditions under which its support can resume, which should include the reintegration of Morsy’s supporters and anti-coup activists in the political process. This would reintroduce some clarity into U.S. policy and signal that foreign assistance to Egypt cannot continue in any form — reduced, restructured, or otherwise — under the present circumstances.

To maximize its leverage, Washington should coordinate this shift with its partners in Europe, Japan, and others in the region, such as Turkey and Qatar. Each individual piece of assistance may not sound like much, but taken together, they can have a real impact. Any International Monetary Fund deal for Egypt — which along with associated grants and commitments could be worth up to $15 billion — should be premised on tangible political progress involving all key parties.

Some Egypt watchers, like former U.S. National Security Council regional director Steven Simon, have argued that Washington has little leverage because Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have pledged to replace any shortfall in funding. This is simply not true. Riyadh and its neighbors can replace lost economic aid, but they cannot provide the military equipment and training that are essential for maintaining Egypt’s most advanced tanks and fighter jets. Military-to-military relations between Washington and Cairo have been built over decades and cannot be undone without Egypt incurring considerable and likely prohibitive costs.

Saudi Arabia has also threatened to withhold security cooperation if the United States cuts aid. This is a bluff, and Obama should call the kingdom on it. Riyadh supports the Syrian rebels and backs counterterrorism efforts because such policies are squarely in Saudi Arabia’s own interests, not because it’s trying to please U.S. officials. It’s the United States that has the leverage in this relationship: Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, is dependent on the U.S. security umbrella, particularly as it relates to the Iranian threat.

Ultimately, the United States needs to fundamentally reorder its strategic priorities in Egypt. In a new Brookings Doha Center paper, we argue for moving beyond the mythology of Camp David — the idea that Washington needs to “buy” peace with Israel from Cairo — and rejecting the idea that the Arab world faces a choice between security and democracy. Instead, it should act in accordance with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recognition back in 2011 that “the real choice is between reform and unrest.”

In the long run, U.S. strategic interests can only be preserved by supporting the emergence of a genuine democracy in Egypt. Countries that are accountable to their citizens are more stable because they offer citizens peaceful, legitimate means of expressing their grievances. The “stability” of authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, is brittle and illusory — as the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia showed us in the early, euphoric days of the Arab Spring.

It is striking how such lessons, which had once been acknowledged by the Obama administration, can so easily be forgotten. The dangers, meanwhile, are becoming more and more difficult to ignore, whether in the form of authoritarian retrenchment, mounting insurgency, or the loss of Egyptian government control over its own territory. The temptation to look away from the Egyptian train wreck is undeniably powerful, but it is a temptation the United States must resist.