The United States faces a major decision regarding which side to support in Egypt: the army or the ousted Moham-med Morsi and the Muslim brotherhood. Unfortunately, any decision the Obama administration makes could backfire.
On the surface, the choice would appear straightforward: because Morsi was the democratically elected president, the United States should support him. In fact, the situation is more complex.
There is a major difference between democracy and liberty. We are deeply committed to supporting democratic leaders against military coups. Morsi won the election last year fairly, which argues for supporting him.
But what about liberty? There is more to democracy than an election. Adolf Hitler was elected. But as soon as he assumed power, he began to curb, and then destroy, all vestiges of democracy. Liberty became a thing of the past.
Most observers believe Morsi and his supporters were in the process of destroying the rights Egyptians had gained with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and Morsi’s election. Mor-si was working quietly but steadily to transform Egypt into a Muslim state with sharia law. This “Is-lamization” was in-tensely opposed not only by those who favored a secular society, but by hundreds of thousands of Coptic Christians, who feared persecution by Muslim fanatics. The Copts have already experienced persecution at the hands of such individuals.
The Obama administration has refused to call Morsi’s ouster a coup, even though it’s clear that the Egyptian Army is now in charge.
The reason for the administration’s refusal is that our country halts assistance in the event of a military takeover (although the president can override that part of the law). The Obama administration does not want to give its critics political ammunition by openly supporting the Egyptian military.
There is another factor. In the past year, in accordance with President Obama’s predilection, the United States was trying discretely to convince Morsi not to pursue a transition to an Islamic state. Obama was convinced that if the United States worked behind the scenes, we could convince Morsi to recognize and respect liberty — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, etc.
There were two problems with Obama’s approach. First, many observers believe he was naive. He is no longer a community organizer; this time, he is dealing with religious fundamentalists who don’t recognize the separation of church and state that we are accustomed to. These are people who be-lieve that religious and political entities are one.
The second problem for the Obama administration is that our efforts to persuade Morsi to allow more liberty soon became known to the Egyptian populace. Not the details, just that we were trying to pull him back from creating an Islamic state. What the average Egyptian be-lieved, however, was that the United States was in bed with Morsi. Thus, when the coup took place, those in the streets saw the United States and Morsi as one.
Our strongest ties in Egypt have been with the armed forces. Most of their weapons and equipment are American, and many of the senior officers have attended U.S. schools such as the one at Fort Leavenworth. Consequently, the Morsi crowd, which was upset when the Army moved to take control of the country, blamed the United States for supporting the army.
Now, we have to figure out what to do. Shall we support the army even though its seizure of power goes against our values? Or shall we continue to support Morsi and the Muslim Brother-hood because Morsi was democratically elected? A third alternative would be to put our heads in the sand and hope the problem goes away.
We need a policy. Egypt is the most important country in the Middle East. What happens there affects the entire region. Instability there could mean instability and conflict elsewhere.
I believe we should follow our national interest. That means supporting a stable, pro-American government, which in spite of its non-democratic nature means the military. That would require continuing to provide the military with advanced weapons and training. In the meantime, we can make it clear to the military that we expect it to move toward the restoration of democracy.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.