The Proper U.S. Response to the Cairo Attack

A handful of Republicans pushed Wednesday to cut off aid to Libya and Egypt. Fortunately, most Republicans and Democrats in Congress reject the idea. In Libya, the government is largely secular and pro-American. It is also weak and unable to preserve order against the many forces — from remnants of the Gaddafi era to radical Islamic militants — that challenge its authority. Cutting off support isn’t the answer. If anything, we should be increasing assistance, especially security assistance, to help Libyans make their country safer, for themselves and us.

The bigger and more important challenge is Egypt. The attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo were not carried out by or at the instigation of the elected Egyptian government. As The Post’s David Ignatius rightly points out, many of the protesters who stormed the compound Tuesday oppose the current government. But that government’s failure to protect the embassy, a core international obligation, and President Mohamed Morsi’s failure to condemn the attacks are worrisome.

There is also reason to be concerned about the Morsi government’s policies more generally. The record is mixed.

Egypt is certainly more democratic than it was under the Mubarak regime, which the United States supported for 30 years. The month-old Morsi government has respected Egypt’s long-standing peace treaty with Israel. When Morsi traveled to Iran recently, he infuriated his hosts by denouncing tyranny and calling for action against Tehran’s ally in Syria. The Egyptian government’s primary interest has been to seek assistance for its faltering economy, and it has been negotiating responsibly with the International Monetary Fund. This is all to the good.

Some conservatives are starting to make a glib comparison between the evolution of Egypt today and the Iranian revolution of 1979. This is a faulty analysis. Egypt is not declaring jihad on the West, and Morsi is not Ayatollah Khomeini. We need to avoid an undiscriminating Islamophobia and distinguish between those who want to kill Americans and those who may dislike the West but are primarily interested in rebuilding their societies after decades of dictatorship.

As with many nascent democracies around the world, Islamic and non-Islamic, the transition in Egypt is incomplete. Some signs give reason for hope, but there are also signs of undemocratic tendencies. The Morsi government has been censoring media and hounding political opponents. Coptic Christians are justifiably scared. Women have reason to worry about whether their rights will be respected.

The United States needs to strike an intelligent balance. If Egypt’s economy crumbles, is the nation going to become less radical? Is it more likely to uphold the peace treaty with Israel? Is it more likely to be a force for moderation in the greater Middle East?

The United States and its friends in the region have a vital stake in the success of Egypt’s transition. U.S. policies should aim to support the forces in Egypt — and there are many — that want a democratic system and a healthy economy. That means providing aid, ideally even more aid than is planned. But it also means making clear to Egyptians what that aid is for. U.S. support should be conditioned on the Egyptian government’s behavior, both internationally and domestically. The Morsi government needs to understand that it will not get U.S. assistance, or much help from the rest of the international community, if it clamps down on freedoms at home, persecutes religious minorities such as the Copts or fails to meet its basic international obligations.

The Obama administration has not been wrong to reach out to the popularly elected government in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood won that election, and no one doubts that it did so fairly. We either support democracy or we don’t. But the administration has not been forthright enough in making clear, publicly as well as privately, what it expects of that government.

Out of fear of making the United States the issue in Egyptian politics, the Obama administration, like past administrations, has been too reticent about stating clearly the expectations that we and the democratic world have for Egyptian democracy: a sound constitution that protects the rights of all individuals, an open press, a free and vital opposition, an independent judiciary and a thriving civil society. President Obama owes it to the Egyptian people to stand up for these principles. Congress needs to support democracy in Egypt by providing aid that ensures it advances those principles and, therefore, U.S. interests.

Meanwhile, politicians and commentators would be wise to tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric. This is an election year, and there is much to criticize in the way the administration has handled events in the Middle East. But a toxic mix is brewing between the natural impulses of political warfare and a tendency, perhaps still on the fringes, to tar all Islamic governments with the same brush and tell them all to go to hell. Sorry, we can’t afford to.

This is not the time for a “who lost Egypt?” debate. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen are far from lost. The only smart course is to redouble our efforts and use the considerable influence the United States still has to try to shape a region that remains of vital concern to Americans and the health and stability of the international order that the United States upholds.