Time to Get Tough on Egypt

Egypt’s new military-backed regime can now claim another first – the largest mass death sentence in the country’s modern history. In the more than nine months since the July 3, 2013, coup, the sheer scale of repression has been striking, surpassing not only former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat, but also Gamal Abdel Nasser in numbers of protesters killed and activists arrested. None of this is any secret, but the over-the-top absurdity of sentencing 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death comes at a particularly bad time for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

On March 12, Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped to resume a significant amount of military aid to Egypt “in the days ahead.” This, however, requires the State Department to certify that Egypt is making progress on democracy. For his part, Kerry has made clear, time and time again, that he sees his own administration’s partial aid cut, announced in October, as little more than a nuisance. In November, he assured his Egyptian counterparts that the “aid issue is a very small issue.” He also said that Egypt’s “roadmap” was moving “in the direction that everybody was hoping for,” a statement that seems the all the more remarkable with every passing day.

On Monday, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said the United States was “shocked” by the mass sentencing, saying it “defies logic.” Only minutes later, however, she retreated to the usual talking points, referring to a “democratic transition” that does not, in fact, exist: “[W]e will engage with all parties and all groups in Egypt to make sure that as their democratic transition moves forward, it’s done so in an inclusive manner. Obviously, there have been setbacks along the way and there’s much more work to do, but we’re going to keep working with the Egyptian government.”

Congress has been more clear-eyed about Egypt’s budding authoritarianism, but only marginally so. The bill outlining the conditions for certification took the step of removing the national security waiver, meaning that the administration cannot simply ignore congressional stipulations as it had in the latter years of the Mubarak era. On the other hand, the language on Egypt is weak, vague and easy to get around. The relevant language is that Egypt should be “taking steps to support a democratic transition.” According to a literalist reading of the law, this means that the administration could point to two or more positive steps that the Egyptian government has taken as of late, regardless of whether 50 or 100 steps have been taken in the opposite direction. Of course, doing so would violate the spirit of the law, as well as the guidance of one of the bill’s chief authors, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Certifying one of the region’s most repressive regimes as moving toward democracy would be both embarrassing and transparently cynical. It would also set a precedent that even non-waiver legislation on democratization can be circumvented, assuming there’s sufficient political will to do so.

It is one thing for Kerry to make off-the-cuff statements that the Egyptian military is “restoring democracy,” that “the roadmap is being carried out to the best of our perception” or that the Muslim Brotherhood had “stolen” the Egyptian revolution. These sentiments, it was often suggested, did not reflect official administration policy or, at least, were not shared by the White House. Despite the thematic consistency of Kerry’s statements, there was always plausible deniability. However, if the Obama administration, under Kerry’s direction, formally certified the resumption of aid, that would no longer be the case: The United States would have, in rather explicit fashion, given Egypt its seal of approval and legitimized the military regime’s turn to repression.

If the United States is on the wrong path, then what might the right one look like? In October, my colleague Peter Mandaville and I outlined a series of difficult but necessary steps the United States needed to take to re-orient its Egypt policy. A full suspension of military aid was the starting point, coupled with a clear communication to our Egyptian counterparts, both privately and publicly, of what it would take for assistance to resume. That said, the longer we wait—and we have now waited almost 10 months—the more difficult it becomes to shift course. So, in a sense, U.S. options are “limited,” as administration officials often point out, but they are limited at least in part due to the administration’s own choices, including punting on the aid question immediately after the coup, when a strong, consistent response could have made the most difference.

From the beginning, the United States has criticized the Egyptian government’s repressive measures and urged it to embrace a more inclusive, democratic path. Yet, the rhetoric has never been backed by any credible commitment to holding Egypt accountable for its actions. The Obama administration will not have any real leverage with its Egyptian counterparts as long as they know that there are no real consequences when they kill, detain and sentence at will. Members of the Egyptian regime think they can get away with it, and, until now, they have. That they have kept up the repression just as Kerry considers certification suggests a level of disregard for even those U.S. officials most willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

It is late—some might say too late—but if the Obama administration was waiting for a last straw, then these sentences could, and should, be it. The only way to restore even a modicum of leverage with the Egyptian government—and, for that matter, credibility—is to finally close the ever-growing gap between what we have said and what we still insist on doing. For starters, that would mean announcing in clear language that the “held” aid from last fiscal year will not be released, and that new assistance for the coming year will not be certified. For too long, the United States has hoped, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that the Egyptian government might succumb to reason and listen to American counsel. But the Egyptians have not listened, and it is unlikely they will, unless the administration gives them a reason to do so.

This article originally appeared in POLITICO Magazine.