President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry need to pay attention to Egypt — now. The most populous Arab country, poster child of the Arab Spring, faces a looming economic crisis and a widespread breakdown in law and order, including increasingly prevalent crime and rape. Either will cripple Egypt’s faltering effort to become a stable democracy.
The Obama administration has treated Egypt primarily as an economic problem and has urged Cairo to move quickly to satisfy International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands to qualify for financing. But there is no separating Egypt’s economic crisis from its political crisis — or from the failures of its current government. Egypt’s economy is struggling, and disorder is rampant primarily because the country’s leaders the past two years — first the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, now President Mohamed Morsi — have failed to build an inclusive political process. Until they do, no amount of IMF funding will make a difference.
Although Morsi won a narrow victory last summer, he has yet to learn what it means to lead in a democratic society. His Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s strongest political force, but it does not command a majority of public support. It cannot simply force its will on the nation, especially one still aroused by the spirit of revolution. Morsi can hardly take on urgent tasks, such as the cutting of wasteful fuel subsidies and the reformation of a corrupt interior ministry and police force, when much of the country is against him and ready to take to the streets at the least provocation.
Under Morsi’s rule, Egyptian society has become polarized between Islamists and non-Islamists. Enraging the political opposition late last year, he railroaded through a new constitution that contains inadequate protections for the rights of women and non-Muslims and leaves open the possibility of Islamic clerical oversight of legislation. Ignoring protests about the flawed process by which the constitution was drafted and passed, Morsi is moving ahead to legislative elections based on an electoral law to which the opposition objects. Meanwhile, his government has cracked down on journalists, brought spurious charges against opposition leaders and limited the right to public protests. It is considering legislation that would constrain the activities of non-governmental organizations even more than Hosni Mubarak did.
The increasingly desperate secular opposition parties have formed a “National Salvation Front,” but under the surface they are divided between those who want to force Morsi to compromise and those who want to force him from power. Even though most favor the economic reforms necessary to get an IMF loan, many feel they must mobilize street protests against any Morsi action.
The result is that, with Egypt at the edge of bankruptcy — it has enough reserves to pay for only three more months of food and fuel imports — the government and the opposition are locked in a game of chicken. The economy is sinking, political conflict is rising and the security situation is deteriorating.
Washington’s response to this crisis has largely been business as usual. Just as the United States once clung to Mubarak, the Obama administration has hewed closely to Morsi, offering a visit to Washington and continuing to deliver the annual $1.3 billion in military assistance — including a recent shipment of F-16 aircraft. The administration’s response to Morsi’s majoritarian bullying has been muted. Egypt’s opposition and nonpartisan human rights groups believe, understandably, that Washington has resumed ignoring undemocratic practices so long as the Egyptian government protects U.S. strategic interests. Outside of opening new contacts with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, there has been no fundamental reassessment of U.S. policy toward Egypt since Mubarak’s removal in 2011. Our military and economic aid packages remain the same — except that nearly all democracy and civil-society assistance has been cut off.
It’s time for a new approach. Both the administration and Congress need to fully review military and economic assistance to Egypt. What does the Egyptian army need to bring security to the Sinai? Probably not F-16s. What conditions should Congress place on aid? Previous packages have appropriately been conditioned on progress toward democracy, but the administration has insisted on a national security waiver and has exercised it to provide the aid regardless of Egypt’s behavior. Perhaps Congress should not permit such a waiver in the next aid bill.
As for Morsi’s planned trip to Washington, it would be better to hold that invitation until he demonstrates a sincere commitment to working with all of Egyptian society and allowing genuine freedom to all citizens. That means supporting a law that meets international standards on regulating civil society, allowing watchdog organizations to operate freely and finally resolving the controversial status of foreign and foreign-funded NGOs. It means ending the persecution of journalists and opposition figures, committing to reform the police and hold them accountable and building a consensus on such critical matters as the constitution and electoral law.
The United States made a strategic error for years by coddling Mubarak, and his refusal to carry out reforms produced the revolution of Tahrir Square. We repeat the error by coddling Morsi at this critical moment. The United States needs to use all its options — military aid, economic aid and U.S. influence with the IMF and other international lenders — to persuade Morsi to compromise with secular politicians and civil-society leaders on political and human rights issues to rebuild security and get the economy on track.