How America Can Get Egypt Back on Track

Reconciliation is still possible, and more important than ever.

Wednesday’s clashes between the Egyptian military and pro-Muslim Brotherhood protestors were predictable and, at the cost of over five hundred lives, tragic. And with the Brotherhood calling for more marches and demonstrations, the violence may worsen before it begins to decrease.

Western leaders are now scrambling to try to halt the killing and create some form of political reconciliation. The United States has the most important role, as the patron-in-chief of the Egyptian armed forces, must play the leading role in this political drama. On Thursday morning, President Obama decried the actions of Egypt’s interim government since the coup-that-wasn’t as well as yesterday’s bloodshed, which included violence by protestors, by the military, and against churches. He insisted that Egypt should commit to a path of nonviolence and democracy and cancelled upcoming joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises.

In the end, it is difficult for statesmen—even the most idealistic—to resist the overwhelming incentives to make decisions on the basis of core national interests above second-order interests such as the spread of democracy and human rights. This is not a criticism, but rather a recognition that while the streets of Cairo have been restive, America’s core interests in the Middle East and North Africa have remained stable. These interests are commonly understood as access and trade through the Suez Canal and maintaining peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and, consequently, stability in the Mediterranean littoral.

As such, President Obama’s administration was careful to orchestrate Mubarak’s stable departure and has since sought to maintain friendly relations with whoever might be in charge in Cairo. When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces overthrew Mohamed Morsi, President Obama was—and remains--reluctant to brand the event a “coup,” as that would trigger a legally mandated end to sizeable U.S. military aid that is thought to keep the peace between Israel and Egypt. Even after Wednesday’s massacre, he still labeled it an “intervention.”

But the White House appears to understand that core American interests do not stop at the Suez and peace with Israel. The administration has been pushing for political reconciliation between Egypt’s various factions—namely the Egyptian military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the fissiparous liberals (there are other factions, of course, but, counterintuitively, the most extreme of them—the Salafis—are easier to manage, at least for now). Not only does such a reconciliation remain possible after this week’s bloodshed, but it also is even more imperative.

Reconciliation may not be possible right now, but it is the only approach that can end the cycle of extralegal competition between Egypt’s Islamists and military that has had such deleterious consequences for the region and the West. These consequences have included political upheaval and the growth of an extremism greater than that espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood: the global militancy of Al Qaeda, which can be traced in many ways directly to Egypt’s prison cells.

A ruler was toppled, the Muslim Brotherhood responded to opening political systems, over-reached, and the system closed down on them. This is not the first time they have been down this road.

In 1951, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was declared void by a newly elected Wafd government. This created a crisis, and the Muslim Brotherhood led calls for jihad against the British. They sent a force of three hundred armed volunteers into the Canal Zone where they attacked British military positions. The government’s inability to resolve the crisis led to widespread disorder throughout Egypt. The heart of Cairo, the most Westernized part of the city, was burned to the ground on January 26, 1952. Martial law was declared, and the leadership of the Brotherhood was briefly detained. What followed was a complex serious of events and violent episodes that culminated in July with the Free Officers Revolution, a military coup. The Free Officers, with the cooperation of the Muslim Brotherhood, seized control of Cairo and the country, toppling the monarchy.

By 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the Free Officers, had consolidated control over the revolution. In the same year, the Brotherhood was dissolved and repressed to such a degree that Richard Mitchell, author of the definitive early history of the movement, predicted it would never rise again. The immediate cause was a purported attempt on Nasser’s life. The Brothers were arrested by the thousands and imprisoned, some without trial. A few of its leaders escaped the country. Brotherhood cadres sat scattered in various prisons across the country.

Eleven years after the 1954 crackdown, the brutal imprisonment and elimination of Organization 1965—a militant Brotherhood faction that looked to Sayyid Qutb for leadership and vision—did little to change anyone’s mind about the Brotherhood’s lack of a future. Organization 1965 was a violent revolutionary cell within the broader movement that did not engage in licit politics. It wanted war. And it was crushed mercilessly.