from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Principle, Pragmatism, and Egypt

October 09, 2013

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Diplomacy and International Institutions


President Obama increasingly appears to believe that Egypt’s July 3 military coup was, well, a coup. Until now, he has not wanted to say so lest it trigger an immediate across-the-board cutoff of military assistance to Egypt, as called for by the Leahy Amendment. Today’s media is filled with reports that the president will withhold almost all forms of military assistance already promised to Egypt—tanks, helicopters, fighter jets—while allowing some non-military assistance to continue to flow to Egypt. Obama appears set to still not use the word “coup” so as to retain his freedom of maneuver to resume the military aid should Egypt’s behavior improve. But in ramping down the assistance now, he is acknowledging the obvious: the military seizure of power this summer from a democratically elected, albeit anti-democratic, government has not gone very well.

Administration officials may be forgiven for wanting to withhold judgment on the coup in order to give Egypt’s military a chance to demonstrate that its toppling of the Morsi government was a corrective action aimed at preserving Egyptian nascent representative politics, not harming them. With the Muslim Brotherhood apparently on a steady path of using democratic institutions to undermine the fragile institutions of the Egyptian state, Obama held his nose at the military’s intervention, and instead urged a rapid and inclusive transitional political process.

But rather than offer a political role for the toppled Muslim Brotherhood, the military has gone for the kill, unleashing violence and repression on the Islamists and excluding them from politics. With the Gulf states stepping in to provide Egypt massive financial assistance (dwarfing Washington’s $1.3 billion in military assistance and whatever influence it may provide), Egypt’s military leaders felt little incentive but to continue on its hardline anti-Islamist course.

The problem with the Obama administration’s approach to Egypt’s internal struggle has been the somewhat artificial distinction it has made between issues that it deems vital and those it deems principled. In his landmark May 19, 2011, speech laying out his administration’s views on the Arab uprisings, President Obama articulated it clearly: “There will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region.” Yet such a distinction is actually artificial, and fails to recognize that adhering to our long-term principles are in our vital and even immediate interests in the region.

This perceived distinction prevented the president from calling out the Muslim Brotherhood when it worked to undermine Egyptian institutions when it was in power, and it led him to shy away from calling the military’s coup by its true name. Yes, American military over flights, continued anti-terrorism efforts, and Egypt’s peace with Israel are critical American interests. Yet an approach that aims to secure these interests while largely disregarding the regime’s domestic behavior—be it that of the Muslim Brotherhood or the military—sacrifices long term durability for short term expediency. The resulting gap, between our actions and our principles, has engendered much of the anti-American sentiment we now face in the Middle East. It also calls into question the long-term viability of our efforts.

Some will then say that what is being called for here is the diminution of support to our friends and allies in the region. To the contrary: friends shouldn’t let friends rule badly. Repressive and non-inclusive rule is not only wrong, it is short-sighted for all. For years, democracy enthusiasts argued that many Arab regimes were rotting from within due to their repressive and anti-democratic nature. The Arab uprisings proved that stability and freedom are not antipodes, even though the path to the latter can often disrupt the former. The challenge for the United States is to believe in its own principles and demonstrate that we really do seek to be true to our friends—both the peoples and the governments of the Middle East—that share these values.