The coup and subsequent crackdown by the Egyptian military that has resulted in the deaths of up to 1,000 civilians and security personnel is deplorable. Hopes for an emerging civilian democracy in Egypt now are dim memories.
President Barack Obama has been criticized for standing on the sidelines while the extermination of the Muslim Brotherhood continues. Many on both ends of the political spectrum are calling on the administration to label the military intervention a coup – which clearly is what it is – and to withdraw the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.
But while standing back might seem frustrating to the critics, it might be the best course in terms of U.S. interests and national security.
The administration might logically have delayed breaking off relations with Egyptian military leaders in hopes of leveraging an agreement to cease the killing and allow for new elections to take place. U.S. officials might also have been counting on the close personal relationships between Egypt’s generals and their U.S. counterparts.
The chance that those overtures would succeed might be slim, but they are worth pursuing. And if they fail, no obvious Plan B presents itself.
Even though the U.S. provides more military aid to Egypt than to any nation except Israel, there is a limit to how much influence $1.3 billion in aid will buy. Saudi Arabia already has tentatively promised to match U.S. assistance, and Egypt’s military also has the option to turning to Russia for help, which would be highly detrimental to U.S. interests in the region.
In addition, the United States currently enjoys preferential use of the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and overflight rights that allow U.S. planes to fly over Egypt on their way to bases in the region. Cutting off aid would risk losing those privileges.
Those who say that withholding aid to Egypt would be both persuasive and morally satisfying should consider that the United States has failed to establish working democracies in either Afghanistan or Iraq, where the nation put boots on the ground and spent hundreds of billions of dollars in protracted wars.
And it is questionable that, with President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in power, Egypt was headed for true democratic rule anyway. Morsi had frozen out the secular parties from participating in the government and had steered the nation’s new constitution toward Islamic law as its foundation.
Removing Morsi at the ballot box would have been preferable to a coup, but military leaders apparently believed they couldn’t wait. And they had the backing of a majority of Egyptians.
It is doubtful now that the Muslim Brotherhood can resume its status as a mainstream political force. The danger is that the coup will radicalize the Brotherhood, which could turn to terrorist tactics.
Unfortunately, the United States is largely powerless to prevent that. The question is whether to accept and deal with the reality on the ground – military rule in Egypt for the foreseeable future – or to break longstanding ties with the military and side with the Islamists.
While promoting democracy in the Middle East is desirable it is not the foremost goal. And in the end, Egyptians themselves will have to determine their own future.
Meanwhile, the question for Americans to ask is, what policy best serves U.S. interests?