Egypt on the brink; Obama hesitates

By Dale R. Herspring

The situation in Egypt presents a foreign policy problem that threatens to blow up in our collective faces, it is the situation in Egypt.  What happens there will determine everything from the size and character of the US military to the price of gas.  I would argue that $5.00 per gallon would not be unreasonable — if shipping in the Suez Cannel is attacked.

It is important at this point to note that the US can only have a very limited impact on what happens in Egypt.  Having said that, we may be losing our already limited ability to leverage events in Egypt.  Sometimes when you are playing cards and you know that you have good hand, you can try push the others in a corner.  Unfortunately, we have a very weak hand.  Permit me to provide some background.

For many years — since the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty was signed —  we have provided both Egypt and Israel with tons of money — $1.5 billion a year in economic and military assistance for Egypt.  As a result, with the exception of Israel, Egypt now has one of the best equipped and trained military force in the Middle East.  Indeed, it is not possible to overstress how “Americanized” the Egyptian military is.  Besides, all of the country’s senior officers have studied in the US – and that includes places like Fort Levenworth.  Besides, almost all of Egypt’s equipment and weapons comes from the US.  As a consequence, the Egyptian military is the most pro-American segment of Egypt.

Unfortunately, Obama’s non-policy toward Egypt does little to help solve or even mitigate the problem.  Here we come to a very serious and indefatigable problem facing the US.  On the one side there is former president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.  They argue that Mr. Morsi won a fair and open election.  He is/was the democratically and legally elected president.  Unfortunately — for Mr. Morsi’s supporters — a democratic polity requires more than just free elections.  The elections are certainly a critical component of a democratic polity, but there are other equally important components, for example, freedom of religion, of the press, judicial process, freedom of speech, etc.  In other words, it is not just a question of the election. 

The problem with Morsi and his Muslim brotherhood is that they are not a political party.  Rather, the core resembles a group of religious fanatics, ready, and willing to do their best to Islamize the country — notwithstanding the fact that about 8 million of its citizens are not Muslims, but Coptic Christians.  Hatred for anything like Judaism and Christianity is basic, which is the main reason why so many Christian churches were burnt to the ground.

It was becoming increasingly clear to moderates, including the officers in charge of the military that Morsi was on a crusade.  He was going to create an Islamic state along the lines of what exists in Iran — and that includes Shiria law with all of its restrictions on women.  There are reports that segments of the military and the moderate segments of Egyptian society tried to talk sense to Morsi, but to no avail.

Obama may not have realized it, but the US was also sucked into this Egyptian Islamist conspiracy in search of political and social power.  For some reason, Obama misjudged the Muslim Brotherhood.  Perhaps his advisors failed to explain the nature of the organization.  The Muslim Brotherhood gave birth to all of the fanatical Islamic groups we are now at war with including al Qaeda and its off-shoots.  Relying on his successes in the neighborhoods of Chicago and other parts of Illinois he thought that we could negotiate a democratic polity with Morsi.  As a result, our ambassador worked closely with Morsi’s office in the naive belief that once these individuals had tasted political power, they would moderate their fanatical religious beliefs.  Clearly, that did not happen, the Brotherhood used the American connection to attempt to legitimize their rule.

Meanwhile, the military became irritated with the Obama government.  After all, they were the most pro-American segment of Egyptian society.  They defended the US and its actions and beliefs.  Now, however, Obama was in bed with Morsi , which in a society where the political lines are so clearly drawn one must side with one side or the other.  So we ended up in the unenviable position of being hated by both sides.

From a policy standpoint, we face a divide in the road.  We can choose to fall on our sword for our principles and values.  That means supporting a return to the old regime, with Morsi in power.  Or we can follow our interests – in spite of how distasteful the military crack-down may be .  It is important to keep in mind that a certain segment of those killed were voluntary martyrs. 

Foreign policy decisions often put one in the position of “damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.  In this case, the situation is made more difficult because no one in the international arena believes anything Obama says, especially if it is a threat will actually be carried out..  So do we cut off aid to the Egyptian Armed Forces?  If we have any leverage in Egypt it is in the army.  So far, they see us solidly on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood.  After all, we cancelled longstanding military exercises with the Egyptian Army and we also cancelled the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets.  Further aid cancellation will have little effect on the Army, but it will erode what little influence we have in that country.  “It would mean cutting off our nose to spite our face,” as the saying goes.  Time to come up with a serious, well thought out, policy.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired US diplomat and Navy captain.

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