U.S. Values and Interests Clash in Egypt

Both Morsi and the coup exposed internal tensions in Washington's approach.

The ouster of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt and the return of the Egyptian military to active involvement in politics has brought to a close the first round of the Obama administration's experiment with attempting to reconcile majoritarian rule with U.S. interests. As with the Bush administration's hope that Islamist forces that came to power as a result of free elections would moderate their policies once in office—the famed "pothole theory" of democracy, in which radicals in opposition become pragmatists once charged with actual governing—the assumption was that the Muslim Brotherhood would not use its dominant position in the parliament and its control of the presidency to take full control of Egypt, but would moderate its program and create political space for its opponents, particularly the representatives of a more secularist point of view. The U.S. government hoped that it would not be forced to make a choice between its desire to promote democracy and securing its interests.

Morsi's presidency was also a test of America's willingness to accept a lesser degree of cooperation from a democratically elected successor government to Hosni Mubarak. Contrary to some dire predictions, Morsi did not abrogate Egypt's peace treaty with Israel—one of the cornerstones of America's strategic vision for the Middle East—nor did he interrupt all cooperation with the United States. At the same time, however, he was not going to continue the full panoply of Egyptian support for U.S. initiatives that his predecessor demonstrated. The Morsi government also was pushing through changes in the civil-military relationship. As with Turkey over the past decade, the United States was caught in a conundrum. In theory, Washington wants to reaffirm full civilian control over the military and keeping the armed forces "confined to barracks" when it came to politics; in practice, however, the military was increasingly seen as one of the remaining bastions of pro-Western, liberal, secular sentiment in the country.

Of course, one of the main problems was that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were classic "illiberal democrats"—prepared to accept the necessity of elections and to have some policies put to the voters for validation but in no way inclined to endorse the full panoply of civil and political rights and ready to impose limits on freedom of speech and assembly. They were, in other words, prepared to accept opposition—but only on their terms.

Morsi, however, had not secured his full control on all the levers of power, and his opposition refused to confine itself to the space he had allotted for them. In a repeat of the 2011 revolution, massive popular unrest combined with the disquiet of the military led to Morsi's overthrow. It now seems that the armed forces, having allowed the political process to unfold without much direction after Mubarak's fall, are now going to play a more controlling role this time around, as the post-Mubarak constitution approved by plebiscite has been suspended, and the timetable for new elections will also be set by the military.

This creates a new dilemma for Washington. Certainly American interests are served by having the Egyptian military—much more of a known quantity, compared with the Brotherhood, "back in the saddle," but it also means accepting the armed forces as a clear counterweight to the possible excesses of the popular majority or of political leaders like the Brotherhood—and allowing the army to set "red lines" for politics and to enforce them. In the past, and in other parts of the world, the United States has been reluctant to endorse military versions of managed democracy. Indeed, Washington worked to move both Turkey and Pakistan away from systems of military supervision over civilian politics—a process that some now are judging in hindsight whether this has served U.S. interests or the spread of liberal values. To some extent, what has happened in Egypt resembles the "soft coups" that used to occur in Turkey, where the military would intervene and where such intervention usually coincided with U.S. interests, even if it offended U.S. values.

It also introduces a new twist in the ongoing policy debate over Syria. Does the experience of the Morsi government suggest that a post-Assad government dominated by even more radical elements than the Brotherhood was in Egypt would be even more problematic—and thus lead the United States to more seriously consider Russian proposals for a negotiated settlement that would minimize their role in Syria? Or will it lead policymakers to conclude that the threat of the Islamists has been overblown, and that even if Islamist groups might acquire early predominance in any new Syrian government—as it happened in Egypt—that over time there would be a "silent majority" that would favor more secular, liberal approaches to governance?

Finally, it raises questions about the U.S. approach to the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. As in Russia, there has been the emergence of a new opposition that has been able to rally support from the rising middle class. The United States hedged its bets in Russia, accepting the possibility of a worsening relationship with Vladimir Putin as a consequence. Do the events in Egypt suggest that Erdogan's government is also vulnerable—or is the United States risking an already tenser relationship with its ally in Ankara if it seems to side with the protestors?