Reflecting on the lessons of the Arab uprisings in November 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was adamant that traditional U.S. policies in the region were no longer tenable. "[A]s the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt made clear," she said "the enduring cooperation we seek will be difficult to sustain without democratic legitimacy and public consent." But such revelations necessitate drastic changes, and in the face of unanticipated events and crises, it's all too easy for the familiar policies of the past to re-emerge. As Egypt descends again into turmoil over the country's fraught constitution-writing process, it appears that the United States is once again embracing the past and eschewing the lessons it learned the hard way during the uprising.
In a move that bears the hallmark of U.S. policy in the Mubarak era, the United States has largely reduced its relationship with Egypt to the maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel and withheld serious judgment of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, even as it actively undermines the country's already troubled democratic transition.
The most severe political crisis to strike Egypt since the fall of Mubarak was sparked by President Mohamed Morsy's Nov. 22 constitutional decree, which granted the executive absolute authority and immunized his decisions from judicial review for the remainder of the transitional period. Morsy defended the move as an attempt to protect the constituent assembly -- tasked with drafting Egypt's new constitution -- from potential judicial dissolution, but his unilateral steps provoked outrage among opposition forces who again took to the streets.
The crisis deepened when the president directed the assembly to ram through a governing document in a chaotic, all-night session that made a mockery of deliberative constitutional process and design. If approved in a hastily called referendum, that slipshod document will bound Egypt's political future and institutionalize its crisis. With a significant portion of the country's judges declaring a strike in response to Morsy's declaration and dueling protesters mobilizing on opposing sides, Egypt's flawed transition now risks tipping into outright civil strife and prolonged instability.
Morsy's actions presented the United States with a difficult choice: Should it challenge an elected Egyptian president just as the two countries have begun to reconstruct bilateral ties? This choice was complicated further by the close cooperation and pragmatism displayed by Morsy and his government in securing a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip last month. These efforts won the Egyptian president newfound confidence in Washington, and administration officials were quick to shower him with praise.
But rather than using his burnished reputation as a regional leader to forge a more consensual and stable transition back home, Morsy capitalized on the favorable international political climate by making an untenable and unjustifiable power grab that has plunged Egypt into crisis and exacerbated existing divisions.
Morsy's moves were particularly damaging to the United States since he made his initial announcement the day after meeting with Clinton to finalize details of the Gaza ceasefire. The timing raised the unfounded specter among already suspicious Egyptians that the Brotherhood had cleared their undemocratic power play with the now-grateful Americans.
The Obama administration's response has only reinforced those fears -- though it does not justify the more baroque conspiracy theories about a secret U.S.-Muslim Brotherhood pact. Following Morsy's decree, the State Department released a tepid statement referencing "concerns" in the international community. The statement urged calm and encouraged "all parties to work together," calling for "all Egyptians to resolve their differences over these important issues peacefully and through democratic dialogue." The decision not to deliver a White House statement further indicated that the Obama administration wished to downplay the significance of Morsy's moves.
But the administration's conservative response was woefully short-sighted and reflected old modes of thinking that were ostensibly discarded in the wake of the Arab uprisings.