Egypt today is a zero-sum game. We’d have preferred there to be a democratic alternative; unfortunately, there is none. The choice is binary: The country will be ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood or by the military.
Perhaps the military should have waited three years for the intensely unpopular Mohamed Morsi to be voted out of office. But General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi seems to have calculated that by then there would be no elections — as in Gaza, where the Palestinian wing of the Brotherhood, Hamas, elected in 2006, established a one-man-one-vote-one-time dictatorship.
The military, brutal and bloody, is not a very appealing alternative. But it does matter what the Egyptian people think. The anti-Morsi demonstrations were the largest in recorded Egyptian history. Revolted by Morsi’s betrayal of a revolution intended as a new opening for individual dignity and democracy, the protesters explicitly demanded his overthrow. And the vast majority seem to welcome the military repression aimed at abolishing the Islamist threat. It’s their only hope, however problematic, for an eventual democratic transition.
And which alternative better helps secure U.S. strategic interests? The list of considerations is long: (1) a secure Suez Canal, (2) friendly relations with the U.S., (3) continued alliance with the pro-American Gulf Arabs and Jordanians, (4) retention of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and (5) cooperation with the U.S. on terrorism, which in part involves (6) isolating Brotherhood-run Gaza.
Every one of which is jeopardized by Brotherhood rule.
What, then, should be our policy? The Obama administration is right to deplore excessive violence and urge reconciliation. But let’s not fool ourselves into believing this is possible in any near future. Sissi crossed his Rubicon with the coup. It will either succeed or not. To advocate a middle way is to invite endless civil strife.
The best outcome would be a victorious military magnanimously offering, at some later date, to reintegrate the more moderate elements of what’s left of the Brotherhood.
But for now, we should not be cutting off aid, civilian or military, as many in Congress are demanding. It will have no effect, buy no influence, and win no friends on either side of the Egyptian divide. We should instead be urging the quick establishment of a new cabinet of technocrats, rapidly increasing its authority as the soldiers gradually return to their barracks.
Generals are very bad at governance. Give the reins to people who actually know something, and charge them with reviving the economy and preparing the foundations for a democratic transition — most important, drafting a secular constitution that protects the rights of women and minorities. The final step on that long democratic path should be elections.
After all, we’ve been here before. Through a half-century of Cold War, we repeatedly faced precisely the same dilemma: choosing the lesser evil between totalitarian (in that case, Communist) and authoritarian (usually military) rule.
We generally supported the various militaries in suppressing the Communists. That was routinely pilloried as a hypocritical and immoral betrayal of our alleged allegiance to liberty. But in the end, it proved the prudent, if troubled, path to liberty.
The authoritarian regimes we supported — in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, even Spain and Portugal (ruled by fascists until the mid 1970s!) — in time yielded democratic outcomes. General Augusto Pinochet, after 16 years of iron rule, bowed to U.S. pressure and allowed a free election — which he lost, ushering in Chile’s current era of democratic flourishing. How many times have Communists or Islamists allowed that to happen?
Regarding Egypt, rather than emoting, we should be thinking about what’s best for Egypt, for us, and for the possibility of some eventual democratic future.
Under the Brotherhood, such a possibility is zero. Under the generals, it’s slim.
Slim trumps zero.