I can’t think of any policy issue the United States has faced in recent times more explosive than the turmoil in Egypt. I also cannot think of a more difficult and sensitive issue for the Obama administration. It’s im-portant for President Barack Obama to have a clear policy and make it known to the relevant parties either publicly or privately.
It is also vital that the policy is consistent. In a confused and chaotic situation such as Egypt, making policy changes is one of the most dangerous things the administration could do be-cause they probably would confuse the key participants.
In terms of policy, the United States has recognized the legitimacy of the Morsi government — that is, the fact that Mohammed Morsi and the Islamic Brotherhood won election fair and square. But the Morsi government has ran into trouble. Morsi and his Islamic Brotherhood colleagues did a masterful job of seizing power using Democratic procedures in an open and free election.
Then problems soon began to appear. Morsi began to Islam-icize the political structure. He removed officials, including some from the military, who did not share his religious views. He also pushed through constitutional changes that favor the fundamentalist thinking of his supporters. This caused a serious problem for liberals like Obama.
What was one to do about a democratically elected administration that was moving slowly but surely Muslim fundamentalism? Organizations such as these are the ones we are at war with, even if Obama won’t admit it publicly. The Obama administration responded with platitudes about the importance of a democratic polity but otherwise indicated U.S. support for the Morsi government.
The result of our kind words for Morsi was that the Egyptian populace saw the United States as a supporter of Morsi and his increasingly Islamic regime. However, many in Egypt, including 20 million Coptic Christians, object to pushing Islam into every part of government and public life.
Like most Americans, these people want a secular public life. As pressure mounted, all these people could see were signs of American support for the Morsi regime. These were the people who had sought secular democracy, and they could not understand the American position. In short, the United States had succeeded in alienating both sides.
Then came the military coup. The Obama administration was frozen in place, primarily because it did not have a policy. It was formally supporting Morsi while spending millions of dollars to fighting militant Islam, which in almost every case comes back to the Muslim Brotherhood. Almost every terrorist group we are fighting traces its roots to the Brotherhood.
Egypt’s military coup puts the United States in a difficult situation. The military is the most pro-American structure in the entire country. Most senior officers have attended school in the United States and most of its weapons are U.S. made.
The White House’s first response was to play word games. This was not a “coup “because Egypt’s new leader is not a military officer.
To be kind, that’s ineffective. First, we have to decide what our policy is. Keeping the Suez Canal open the Egyptian-Israeli agreement intact are critical for us, our European allies and those who live in the area.
We have other interests that may force us to bend our definition of democracy. The military, already involved deadly clashes with protesters, may may be further involved in bloody business in coming weeks. What’s foremost for Egypt is political stability. Second is economic stability. It is important to keep in mind that democracy involves more than free elections. It also means things like religious freedom and the ability to speak one’s views without fear of reprisal.
While it may be uncomfortable, the “democracy” touting Obama administration may have to accept the fact that a military government may be the best option for now. Americans err when they think U.S.-style democracy is easily exportable; the United States has had 237 years to develop its current structure.
The Obama administration has a fundamental decision to make. It can lead from behind and be left behind or lead from the front and possibly have a positive impact on how the situation develops.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.