Time to Break Out of a Rut in Egypt

The United States has generally been a great force for the promotion of democracy around the world. But no one should be surprised that President Obama winked at last week’s military coup in Egypt. American support for democracy has never been consistent. The United States backed many “friendly” dictators throughout the 20th century and even toppled democratically elected governments or winked at coups against them — as Eisenhower did in the case of Mossadegh in Iran and Arbenz in Guatemala, and as Nixon did in the case of Allende in Chile.

Obama, however, probably did not see himself as an upholder of this particular tradition when he entered the White House (though his advisers like to compare him to Eisenhower). At the start of his presidency, Obama apologized to the Iranian people for the overthrow of Mossa­degh. In “The Audacity of Hope,” he criticized previous administrations for viewing “nationalist movements, ethnic struggles, reform efforts” as threatening and for letting such fears outweigh “our professed commitment to freedom and democracy.” He noted, too, how “the removal of democratically elected leaders in countries like Iran” had produced “seismic repercussions that haunt us to this day.”

American embarrassment about past acquiescence to dictatorships and military coups is widespread. It is a major theme of high school history textbooks and college courses on foreign policy. In recent decades, leaders of both parties have tried to push U.S. policy in a different direction. Under Ronald Reagan, the United States lent support to democratic movements that toppled “friendly” dictatorships in the Philippines, Korea, Haiti and elsewhere (though not in the Middle East). The Clinton administration worked to hold the new democracies in Eastern and Central Europe to high democratic standards. The George W. Bush administration tried, albeit unevenly, to reshape American relations with the dictatorships of the Arab world, particularly Egypt. Across the ideological spectrum, one of the big lessons of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was that dictatorships helped breed terrorism and that the best cure would be an Arab political opening. Obama embraced that opening when it came and thus cautiously embraced the broad post-Cold War consensus.

Yet how quickly that consensus has crumbled in the face of its first difficult test — the election of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. And yes, that was a very difficult test. Morsi was not only an incompetent ruler but also in many ways an undemocratic one. He imposed restrictions on the media and excluded the opposition from important constitutional decisions. He ruled not so much as a dictator but as a majoritarian, which often amounted to the same thing. With a majority in parliament and a large national following, and with no experience whatsoever in the give-and-take of democratic governance, Morsi failed in the elementary task of creating a system of compromise, inclusiveness, and checks and balances. He was the opposite of a Mandela. He also failed as a manager of the national economy, unwilling to make an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and to carry out difficult but necessary economic reforms.

For his incompetence, he deserved to be voted out of office at the next election. For his majoritarian and undemocratic practices, he deserved to be placed under sustained domestic and international pressure, especially by the United States, the leading provider of aid to Egypt. He deserved to have the United States not only suspend its bilateral aid to Egypt but also block any IMF agreement until he entered into a meaningful, substantive dialogue with his political opponents, including on amending the flawed constitution he rammed through in December as well as electoral law. He ought to have been ostracized and isolated by the international democratic community. Morsi is certainly not the only democratically elected leader to have acted undemocratically in recent years, and these are the kinds of actions the United States and other democracies have generally taken in response. And all this would have been a great deal more pressure than Hosni Mubarak ever faced except in the final two weeks of his 30-year rule.

But was a military coup the best answer? The good news is that a bad leader is gone. Yet that is where the good news ends. People talk cheerfully about starting over in building an Egyptian democracy. But the slate is hardly clean, and the obstacles to Egyptian democracy are greater than they were before the coup.

The military, having effectively deposed two Egyptian leaders in 2½ years, has firmly established itself as the only real power in the country. Mohamed ElBaradei and other secular leaders are happy to have been vaulted into positions of apparent power, but one wonders how real or long-lasting their influence will be. Live by the sword, die by the sword: If the military can depose one democratically elected government, it can depose another. What happens when Egyptian “people power” returns to confront the next government, as it surely will? Once again the military will have the choice of intervening or not. Its decision is likely to have a lot to do with how the military feels about that government. So who will wield the real power when the next crisis comes?

And the next crises are entirely predictable. The economic problems that Morsi inherited and failed to solve require significant sacrifices by average Egyptians, who have already sacrificed much. Such reforms would be difficult to implement even in a calm political climate, and the post-coup climate will be anything but calm. At least some portion of the millions who voted for Morsi have probably come to two conclusions: first, that democracy is a sham; and, second, that what matters in Egypt is who has the guns. Some followers of the Muslim Brotherhood may well decide that violence is their best and only recourse. And the military will in turn impose more-severe limitations on civil liberties to combat the violence, employing — along with the police — their traditional brutal methods. They may even attempt to prevent the Brotherhood from fielding candidates in the next election. After all, having deposed one Muslim Brotherhood government, the military may not think it wise to let another, possibly angrier Brotherhood government get elected six months from now. What will the secular liberal civilians now allied with the military do as these threats to personal liberties and democratic processes metastasize? On Thursday, as the military was arresting dozens of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, ElBaradei said he would be the first “to shout loud and clearly if I see any sign of regression in terms of democracy.” One wonders when he will choose to see it, and what will happen to him if he ever does start shouting.

Egypt is not starting over. It has taken a large step backward. And the Obama administration bears much blame. It put little or no meaningful pressure on Mubarak to make even minor political reforms that might have been enough to prevent the anti-regime outburst that exploded at the end of 2010. Then it put little or no tangible pressure on Morsi to end his undemocratic practices, which might have forestalled the most recent crisis.

It has become fashionable in today’s “post-American world” milieu to argue that the United States had no ability to shape events in Egypt. This is absurd. The United States is far from being all-powerful, but neither is it powerless. Americans provide $1.5 billion a year in assistance to Egypt, $1.3 billion of which goes to the Egyptian military. It has leverage over the decisions of the IMF and influence with other international donors on whom Egypt’s economy depends. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt wields so much potential influence that Egyptians obsess daily over whom she is meeting, and they concoct wild conspiracies based on trivial events. The assumption in Egypt, as in much of the Arab world, is that nothing happens unless the United States wills it. The problem is not that the United States has no power but that the Obama administration has been either insufficiently interested or too cautious and afraid to use what power the United States has.

It has also become fashionable once again to argue that Muslim Arabs are incapable of democracy — this after so many millions of them came out to vote in Egypt, only to see Western democracies do little or nothing when the product of their votes was overthrown. Had the United States showed similar indifference in the Philippines and South Korea, I suppose wise heads would still be telling us that Asians, too, have no vocation for democracy.

So now that the military coup has occurred, how do we avoid the “seismic repercussions”? Any answer must begin with a complete suspension of all aid to Egypt, especially military aid, until there is a new democratic government, freely elected with the full participation of all parties and groups in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The Obama administration then needs to work closely with other nations and the IMF to ensure that no loans or other forms of economic aid are provided to Egypt until democratic governance is restored. This approach runs contrary to the Obama administration’s instincts, which until now have been to work cooperatively with whoever holds power in Egypt and to avoid overt forms of pressure.

It is past time to get out of this rut of failure. Better to learn from our history than to repeat it. It will be sad if some future American president has to apologize to Egyptians for what Barack Obama did, and did not do, in 2013.