With the world focused on the crisis in Syria and the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian detente, the fact that Egypt’s political situation is going from bad to worse has flown under the political radar. Much to the relief of the generals in Cairo — and likely also some members of President Obama’s Middle East policy team — the United States appears to be kicking another difficult regional policy decision down the road.
This is a mistake.
By countenancing the July 3 coup and the military’s subsequent crackdown on the supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, the United States may be helping to sow seeds that could grow into a costly and deeply destabilizing insurgency for years to come.
The Obama administration responded to the military crackdown, which resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, with the diplomatic equivalent of a few light raps on the knuckles of Egypt’s generals. It canceled joint military exercises with Egypt and announced that the White House’s national security staff would begin a comprehensive review of bilateral aid. Since late August, a recommendation to suspend the majority of U.S. military assistance to Cairo has been sitting with the president. Meanwhile, Egyptian security forces have re-escalated their campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, raiding the movement’s strongholds and arresting the few remaining senior Brotherhood figures not already in custody.
The Obama administration knows that things are not going well in Egypt. U.S. officials — privately and rather halfheartedly — tried to walk back Secretary of State John Kerry’s bizarre claim that Egypt’s military leaders were “restoring democracy” and have also delayed delivery of F-16 fighters to Egypt. However, Washington’s overall response to the undoing of Egypt’s democratic process has not come close to matching the gravity of the crisis.
The Obama administration’s anemic response is indicative of the larger strategic drift of America’s response to the 2011 Arab uprisings. In the immediate aftermath of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama admitted that the United States had not pushed hard enough for democracy in the Arab world, and he promised a new way of doing business in the region. At arguably every major juncture since then, however, whenever Washington has had the opportunity to demonstrate its support for genuine democracy in Egypt, it has instead opted for some version of the “authoritarian bargain” that characterized U.S. regional policy for decades.
Obama’s address at the United Nations last week on Sept. 24 seemed to confirm the reality of American policy. In the world-weary tones that have come to define his speeches, Obama acknowledged in unusually explicit terms that democracy was secondary to Middle East policy and that security concerns and “core interests” would take precedence.
The Obama administration appears to be hoping that the Egyptian military, despite its brutality — or perhaps because of it — will provide a modicum of stability. This risks repeating the same mistakes of the pre-Arab Spring era: While a sense of calm has returned to parts of Cairo, the specter of renewed violence still looms large. An insurgency is gathering pace in the Sinai Peninsula, with a sharp increase in attacks on security personnel after Morsi’s ouster. Meanwhile, the state has lost control of some pro-Morsi strongholds, requiring the use of overwhelming force in the towns of Dalga and Kerdasa in an attempt to regain its authority.