The United States Should Quit Meddling in Egypt

Jul 25, 2013 | Updated Sep 24, 2013

As the Muslim Brotherhood and its liberal opponents continue to war over control of Egypt, General Abdulfattah al-Sisi, who was instrumental in removing President Morsi from power just three weeks ago, is now calling on Egyptians to turn out on Friday to give him a "mandate" to quell violence at recent anti-government protests. With the nation in turmoil, it is increasingly clear that both parties are using U.S. policy toward Egypt as a whipping boy to rally support for their respective causes as they continue their standoff. Liberal demonstrations have claimed that the Obama administration had supported the Brotherhood and its former President, Mohamed Morsi. Yet the Brotherhood has claimed that despite the U.S. government's neutral rhetoric during the latest crisis--calling on all sides to rein in violence from their supporters--American diplomats are secretly pressuring the Brotherhood to resign itself to Morsi's ouster by the Egyptian military, re-enter the political process, and thus legitimate the coup. Both sides are correct. How can this be?

In cases in which the forces of stability (read: those protecting U.S. economic, political, or military interests) and democracy are arrayed against each other, the United States often sides with stability. In fact, in some cases, the United States has even helped to overthrow democratically elected governments in favor of more "stable" authoritarian regimes-- Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Congo in 1961, Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1973, to name just a few.

In 2011, the United States reluctantly accepted the Egyptian military's overthrow of its long-standing ally, Hosni Mubarak, as president of Egypt. The United States finally realized that popular discontent in that country had gone decisively against the autocrat. Despite long-standing U.S. suspicions about the Muslim Brotherhood's moderate Islamist ways, the United States had no choice but to work with Mohamed Morsi, the resoundingly elected Brotherhood candidate for president.

Morsi was not a perfect democrat by American standards, but in the developing world, such a high bar is rarely achieved. Although Morsi did issue a high-handed decree extending his powers, he rescinded it under pressure after an outpouring of democratic sentiment against it. (Is this so different from President George W. Bush's attempts to grab more executive power after 9/11--to be only partially reined in by a popular backlash and the U.S. Supreme Court?) Morsi did not dissolve Egypt's lower house of parliament--that was Egypt's supreme administrative court--and he did invite opposition leaders to join his cabinet, though they refused. Even in the recent turmoil, he showed an inclination to compromise by offering to form a government of national unity and accelerate the timing of elections for a new parliament.

However, in 2013, after only a year of his being in power, the U.S. government saw a chance to get rid of Morsi. In fact, the historical record shows that both Democratic and Republican administrations always feel the need to rhetorically back the promotion of democracy, regardless of whether their underlying policy deviates significantly from that stated goal--as it has apparently done in this case. If the United States truly supports democracy in Egypt, one would expect a vigorous U.S. denunciation of a military coup against a government selected by fair elections. Instead, we hear neutral "all sides need to restrain violence" statements emanating from Washington.

The underlying reality is that the United States was concerned that the Islamist Morsi would not be as good at maintaining the peace agreement with Israel as an alternative government blessed by the Egyptian military, which gets U.S. aid to do just that. The U.S. government could have had a clear democratic conscience by continuing to work with Morsi if he had been allowed to remain in power, but instead decided it was a good time to secretly back the Egyptian military to get rid of him. U.S. back-room support for a coup is important in Egypt: we provide $1.6 billion annually in aid to Egypt--with most of it going to the military.

Successful U.S. coercion on the Brotherhood to re-enter politics would have tamped down a violent reaction to the coup from the Islamist street, legitimized the putsch, and allowed the window dressing of Brotherhood participation in a "democracy" that will really exist only under the shadow of future potential military intervention. However, the Brotherhood is currently resisting such U.S. pressure and seems to be gearing up to massively challenge the coup in the streets, perhaps violently.

Unfortunately, these weeks of violence and news of the power surge scheduled on Friday discourages other Islamist groups in the Middle East from participating in the democratic process and may further radicalize them. A better overall policy would have been to match U.S. impartial rhetoric with truly neutral behind-the-scenes behavior. But after decades of profligate unnecessary U.S. meddling in the affairs of other nations, many in Egypt (and everywhere else) expected superpower intervention in some way; unfortunately, they have not been disappointed.