Egypt: Balancing Interests Over Values

America must hold its nose in the short run, backing the regime but pushing liberalism later.

The bloody events in Egypt have placed American policymakers precisely where they least like to be—torn between American strategic interests and ideals. Reconciling the exigencies of realpolitik with support for democracy and human rights has always proven difficult.

That is why Saudi Arabia, a nation antithetical to everything America stands for, is a close ally that the United States has even gone to war to protect. That is why Jordan, led by a moderate despot, is currently the U.S. darling in the Arab world. That is why President Obama has remained impassive despite the slaughter of over one hundred thousand people in Syria, including repeated uses of chemical weapons, but has been more involved in Egypt in which "just" one thousand people have been killed since the military ousted President Morsi.

Part of the problem lies in the misperception, trumpeted by leading American media and some political leaders, that Egypt was undergoing a "transition to democracy" following President Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011. True, Morsi was elected in his country's first free elections, but Egypt, under the thrall of the Muslim Brotherhood, was undergoing democratization only in the sense that Germany was after free elections gave rise to the Nazis in 1932, the mullahs in Iran in 1979, or Hamas in Gaza in 2006. It is not by chance that the liberal camp in Egypt strongly supported the military's ouster of Morsi and the harsh measures adopted since then to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentally anti-democratic organization.

To become a Brother is not like registering for the Republican or Democratic parties. The aspiring member undergoes an exhaustive vetting process that can take eight years, in which his total devotion to the Brotherhood is intensely scrutinized. The aspirant will be first inducted into a local neighborhood cell, to which he must devote a considerable portion of his time, faithfully carrying out organizational duties, and which will assess every aspect of his life, both party-related and private, in minute detail. Over the years, the successful aspirant will join successively broader cells which will continue screening his complete ideological purity and commitment. Rather than a political party, it is more like an underground movement.

It is also rabidly anti-American, fundamentally opposed to the values of freedom and pluralism that most Americans cherish, and blatantly anti-Semitic. That the first targets attacked by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in recent days included tens of Christian sites and museums is indicative.

The United States has major strategic interests in Egypt, the Arab country with the largest population and traditionally the leader of the Arab world. It needs a stable Egypt that will remain the head of a moderate, pro-American Arab camp, a force for moderation and stability in a vital region. Without Egypt, there is no pro-American Arab “camp,” and the United States will have a far harder time promoting its interests in this vital region and building Arab coalitions during future crises. Maintaining Egypt's peace with Israel is a bedrock of stability and American interests in the region and will have a significant impact on the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian progress. Military cooperation with Egypt, such as uninhibited overflights and naval passage through the Suez Canal, is also important. No Arab country can replace Egypt's pivotal role. The United States also has an interest in promoting democracy throughout the world.

Obama made two egregious errors in his treatment of Egypt since events there began unfolding in 2011. He abandoned Mubarak too rapidly, at a time when the regime might still have been saved, although Obama had no other choice shortly thereafter when his demise became inevitable and defending him would have placed the United States on the "wrong side of history." Not for the first time, the United States turned on one of its friends, a moderate dictator, but not infinitely more heinous ones, to its own disadvantage. Second, Obama continued "business as usual" following the Muslim Brotherhood's election, even when it became clear just how antidemocratic the Morsi government was.

He may now be making a third major error, strongly condemning the measures taken by the new military regime, suspending delivery of F-16s and a major joint military exercise, and indicating that further measures may be in the offing (suspension of the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid is the only major leverage left), while concomitantly acquiescing to the regime’s actions in the hopes of preserving the basic relationship. This middle-of-the-road approach has succeeded only in gaining opprobrium from all sides in Egypt, strongly alienating the military regime and risking a rift.