Strategic Interests in the Region Should Guide U.S. Policy in Egypt
The debate in the United States over policy toward Egypt has become mired in the principle of the democratic process. But the moral issues involved are complicated, and U.S. policy should be guided by our larger strategic interests across the Middle East.
The Obama Administration’s approach toward Egypt in recent years has damaged America’s position there and throughout the Middle East. Having first supported longstanding ally Hosni Mubarak, then calling for him to resign amid rising protests, and then supporting the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Morsi until he was overthrown, and now seemingly supporting the military and the Brotherhood, the Obama Administration has managed to alienate all sides and undermine U.S. credibility across the region.
The Administration is compounding those blunders, and its image for weakness and moral confusion, by pressing the military to include the unwilling Brotherhood in the political process. It deserves credit for so far resisting bipartisan calls to cut off $1.5 billion in military aid to Egypt, but its reported suspensions of delivery of helicopters and F-16s suggest a piecemeal capitulation.
There is nothing to be gained morally to including the Brotherhood in the political process. When in power, it demonstrated a keenness to repress dissent and maintain its position by any means necessary. Further, the Brotherhood is virulently anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-women, anti-Israel and anti-Western. The military is not inherently any of these things, even if it too is repressive.
Moreover, undercutting the military and help returning the Brotherhood into power would undercut our strategic position in the Middle East.
Among the major trends coursing through the unstable region over the last few years is: the breakup of the post-First World War order of states and growth of sectarianism; a rise of Islamic radicalism of both the Shia and Sunni variety; surge of Iranian power; and decline of U.S. influence and credibility. Undercutting the Egyptian military and boosting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would exacerbate most of these negative trends.
The radical Sunni Muslim Brotherhood movement until the Egyptian coup has enjoyed a recent renaissance in the Middle East. It came to power in Egypt via elections in 2012 after decades in repressed opposition; it has grown in power in Syria during the civil war there; it swelled in Jordan threatening the rule of the close U.S. ally, the moderate King Abdullah II; and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, which rules Gaza (initially through an election in 2006) has become more powerful vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority.
The Brotherhood’s Turkish kin, the Justice and Development Party, headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and governing through elections since 2002, remains fundamentally anti-Western even though it more practically has maintained a close relationship with the United States. Erdogan has gradually moved that previously secular Muslim country into a more Islamist direction, and often lashes out at Israel, the Jews and the West. Just this week, he blamed Israel for the Brotherhood’s overthrow in Egypt, and he has blamed Jews and various Westerners for the eruption of hundreds of thousands of demonstrations against his increasing authoritarianism earlier this summer. If Morsi had followed the example set by Erdogan, who over years has jailed hundreds of journalists and military officers, suppressing dissent, he wouldn’t be in his current predicament.
Some believe removal of the Brotherhood in Egypt will embolden its supporters across the region, radicalize them, and teach them that it is best not to participate in a democratic process. That is possible, but they are already radical, and see elections as a means to grab and keep power, which they maintain through very illiberal means.
Indeed, the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt has been a blow to the movement across the Middle East. Reinstalling it in the political process or bringing it back into power would give it a huge boost. It would bolster Hamas, at the expense of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the slim chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It would augment the Brotherhood’s position in Jordan at the expense of our close ally Abdullah. And it would give a jolt to Erdogan.
The only potential offsetting positive in helping the Brotherhood in Egypt is that it might boost its supporters in Syria, who contribute to the forces fighting the Assad regime, which is strongly supported by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. However, they are not the only rebel force in Syria, and this potential positive is more than outweighed by the other negatives of bolstering the Brotherhood.
Undermining our longstanding Egyptian military partners would also exacerbate perceptions of U.S. unreliability. Rulers in Riyadh and other allied Arab capitals are still smarting from 2011, when the United States abruptly ditched Mubarak, and then pressed the Saudis, Bahrainis and others to reform their own governance in response to domestic demonstrations. The Obama Administration has also provoked unnecessary conflicts with our close ally Israel, although it has sought better ties over the last year.
Additionally, subverting the Egyptian military’s authority would erode our policy to prevent a nuclear Iran. The military is a natural ally against Iran’s nuclear development. Mubarak helped anchor the anti-Iranian Arab front in the region. Morsi wasn’t a friend of Tehran but he began to normalize relations with it, and allowed Iranian warships to transit the Suez Canal.
Moreover, undercutting the Egyptian military would reinforce for Iran the impression of U.S. fecklessness and weakness. Tehran has already in recent years seen this up close in the United States, including: the inaction in response to an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington; setting an irrelevant red line of nuclear weaponization instead of the more prudent and knowable nuclear weapons capability; its waiving of sanctions to countries that still import substantial quantities of Iranian petroleum; offering Tehran better deals at each diplomatic round without reciprocal Iranian concessions; public and leaked comments by senior Pentagon officials playing up the risks of a U.S. or Israel military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities while downplaying the possible benefits; and a clear aversion to confronting, directly or indirectly, the Assad regime, Hezbollah and Russia in Syria, for what has become a proxy fight with Iran.
The best chance for a peaceful resolution of Iran’s nuclear challenge is if Tehran genuinely feared the United States. Tehran has to be believe that we will relentlessly and forcefully pursue our strategic interests, including protecting the interests of our Israeli and Arab allies who consider a nuclear Iran an existential threat. The Tehran regime would have to believe that the United States would not shirk from a conflict but is fully willing to attack Iranian nuclear facilities as a last resort. Abandoning our long-term partners, such as the Egyptian military, in the face of some dubious moral qualms, further reduces the chances that the Iranian regime will believe such a thing. It also increases the chance that Israel will feel it has no choice but to take matters into its own hands and attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
For the sake of our embattled strategic position in the Middle East, the Obama Administration must show firmness in Egypt, and stand by the only major Egyptian entity, however flawed, that has been friend of the United States and our allies: the Egyptian military.