Slaughter on the streets of Cairo is not the way to usher in a new era of democracy in the Middle East. The military government now in charge of Egypt has delivered the hope of the Arab Spring into the iron grip of repression and fear.
President Obama was right to condemn the Egyptian government’s actions and to halt military exercises the United States was planning with Egypt.
The tragedy of Egypt has many players, and one of them was the ousted president Muhammad Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who had squandered the opportunity to fashion an inclusive government that respected the dignity of all. He and the Brotherhood used their new power to secure power for themselves and not to lead the country toward a prosperous future. Before the military toppled Morsi’s government, the Egyptian economy was in free fall.
But in ousting Morsi and the Brotherhood, the military was doing more than shuffling leaders. It was interposing itself in the democratic process, thwarting the will of the people by ejecting an elected president and quashing one of the most influential movements in the country by turning their guns on the Brotherhood.
The government has killed more than 500 people. That is a historic act of repression that will reverberate through the region for years. It will harden the will of fundamentalist Muslims throughout the region. It will persuade jihadis and the full range of Islamist radicals that terrorism is their only recourse. It is likely the Egyptian military has given life to a new generation of terrorists.
Apologists for the military say they needed to bring law and order to Egypt, to set it on the road to prosperity. Indeed, the incompetent rule of Morsi and the Brotherhood had caused conditions to deteriorate so that the need for order to be restored became more pressing. But repression imposes an illusory form of order. The Soviet bloc suffered the steady deterioration of repression over decades, as did Egypt under Hosni Mubarak.
It is an irony of history that as a ruthless tyrant clings to power in Syria, the United States has aligned itself with rebels, who include among their number radical Islamists who have little use for the United States. But in Egypt, the United States finds itself aligned with the tyrant against the Islamists. The reason is that the U.S. role as midwife of the peace between Israel and Egypt made Egypt a sort of ally that depends on billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
A provision of U.S. law, known as the Leahy law because of its author, Sen. Patrick Leahy, requires the U.S. to cut off military aid to nations that have been subject to military coups. But because U.S. aid is an integral part of the equation of power in the Middle East, the Obama administration has been reluctant to label the coup in Egypt a coup. Leahy has not pressed the point. The law allows the administration to waive the requirement in certain circumstances, and apparently this is that sort of circumstance.
Egypt remains bitterly split between, on the one hand, its secular, modernizing Muslims, its Christians and its pro-military interests and, on the other hand, the more conservative Muslim factions associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. That split in one form or another is wracking the whole region — from Tunisia to Syria to Turkey to Iran. A complicating overlay is the sectarian rivalry between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
Obama was correct in saying that the United States cannot sort out these problems. It is up to the Egyptians to determine their own fate. What we can do is to remain true to our values, defending the importance of human rights and human dignity, while pressing our allies, even within the Egyptian military, to pursue a course that will ultimately lead toward peace and prosperity.
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