Anyone wondering about the US role in Egypt’s turmoil should consider two images from last week. Firstly, there was the strange sight of millions of Egyptians in the street begging the army to get rid of the president they voted for less than a year ago. Secondly, a banner displayed by the opposition at a massive rally last week which depicted Muhammad Morsi’s portrait superimposed on a Jewish star, flanked by the American and Qatari flags.
The run-off election last year of the now-rejected president had been welcomed by the US administration because the process had been free and fair, at least as far as the host of domestic and international observers were concerned. There wasn’t much in the Muslim Brotherhood’s programme that appealed to American sensibilities, but the feeling was that the United States would have to work with the new government, in part to make the more general point within the region that it was willing in principle to work with Islamists and because intensive engagement would be essential to Egypt’s economic recovery and political stability. Washington paid a price for this support in its relations with important allies, especially Israel, which worried about encirclement, and some of the Arab Gulf countries, which are particularly suspicious of the Brothers’ agenda. It was a price that had to be paid, but was expected to diminish over time if the new government proved pragmatic.
In the interim, the US administration – and President Obama personally – tried to get Morsi to grasp the importance of inclusivity to his political viability. The manipulation of the constitutional process and his November 2012 decree that gave him extrajudicial powers were deeply worrying. But the fact was that Morsi just didn’t get it. Everyone else was to blame: the liberals’ withdrawal from the constitutional process, foreign provocateurs, conspirators from the old regime. The evident sincerity of his objections contributed to his rigid response to the developing crisis. In the end, he could not have tried harder to alienate a huge voter bloc that, not without reason, felt disenfranchised and threatened. In an astounding irony, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood inadvertently handed the country to the army, which did not want it.
As the opposition banner described above suggests, the United States will be blamed for what happens no matter what. If the United States condemns the army ‘for siding with the people’, it will be hated by the half of Egypt that either voted last year for Ahmed Shafiq, the losing presidential candidate, or is otherwise unhappy with Islamist rule. If it maintains its current posture – democracy is good, get back to it – it will be hated by Islamists, as numerous commentators have pointed out. Either way, it’s worth remembering that Egyptians, insofar as polling is accurate, don’t very much like the United States or regard it as a legitimate interlocutor. So the grounds for hope that anything could come of Washington’s influence would seem pretty thin in any case.
While Egyptians tie themselves into knots over how they want to be governed, the United States continues to have secular interests in priority access to the Suez Canal for its navy, continued peace between Egypt and Israel, and a modicum of counter-terrorism cooperation. Given that both sides in Egypt are deeply suspicious of Washington, wisdom and prudence would seem to argue for tacit support for the players who can deliver. The army, in combination with the Brothers, did so. Probably the army in combination with a congeries of regime remnants, Nasserists and ‘secular liberals’ will deliver as well. Washington can and will continue to push the contending parties toward a compromise leading to elections and, in effect, another try at democracy. But cutting off one side or another, or threatening to, would be self-defeating.
The key issue now is whether the Brothers are allowed to run in the next elections. If so we may see a repeat of Turkey, where the first episode of Islamist rule failed, but the second, with a competent, if authoritarian, politician at the helm succeeded in consolidating power and boosting the economy at the expense, perhaps, of minority rights.
Steven Simon is Executive Director of the IISS–US and Corresponding Director of IISS–Middle East. Until the beginning of this year, he served on the National Security Staff at the White House, where he was the senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs.