Cairo is having yet another crisis. This week's dramatic storming of the Semiramis Hotel just off of Tahrir Square by unknown thugs, the massive unrest and bloodshed leading to the imposition of emergency law in the canal cities, and ongoing clashes in Tahrir Square are fueling a general sense of the collapse of public order. The immediate spark for the surge of violence was the verdict on last year's soccer mayhem, combined with the aftermath of the Jan. 25 anniversary protest. But really, it feels like it could have been anything.
The latest manifestation of Egypt's ongoing political and institutional crisis has many causes. The exceptionally clumsy leadership from the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsy's repeated attempted power grabs. The opposition's rejection of the political transition but inability to offer any compelling alternative. The frustration of revolutionaries and the emergence of violent, anarchic trends on the streets. Intense social and political polarization that neither side seems capable of restraining. The economic crisis and security vacuum keeping everyone on edge. In this context, Defense Minister Gen. Abd el-Fattah el-Sissi's widely quoted comment that the ongoing crisis "may lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of the coming generations" sounds more like sober analysis than veiled coup threat.
The U.S. response thus far has been characteristically low-key. There's almost certainly a sort of crisis fatigue, a sense that the Egyptian political class has cried wolf about the sky falling a few too many times. Still, the White House and the State Department have condemned violence on all sides, and called for an inclusive dialogue to build a consensus that respects the rights of all citizens. As has been the case throughout the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has drawn a line at the use of violence. But it correctly continues to insist that the solution to the crisis must come from Egyptians.
For many Egyptians, and much of the Egypt policy community in the United States, this isn't enough. The United States should do more, do it differently, and do it more boldly (for examples, see this new collection of comments by top experts just released by the Project on Middle East Democracy [PDF]). Most of the critics agree that Washington should do more to support Egyptian democracy (not all, of course -- Mubarak nostalgia has made an ugly comeback, especially among those on the right who always despised the Muslim Brotherhood more than they cared for Arab democracy). This is a bit tricky, though, because the Muslim Brotherhood actually won reasonably free and fair democratic elections. Pushing to bring down this elected government in the name of democracy would ordinarily be viewed as a tough sell.
The Obama administration believes that it is supporting democracy in Egypt, and it has a pretty good case to make. It isn't just its (still contested) role during the 18 days in helping to nudge Mubarak from power. The Obama team can also point to its quiet role in pushing the Egyptian military to commit to the transfer of power to an elected government, to live up to that commitment, and to not tip the presidential election to Ahmed Shafiq, a retired general and Mubarak loyalist. The administration consistently stuck to its position even when faced with a blizzard of panicked calls for postponement over violence, institutional chaos, legal shenanigans, or the stated or unstated recognition of imminent defeat (even I went wobbly once during intense clashes just before the parliamentary election, when it appeared that an election couldn't possibly be held amidst such chaos; I was wrong). Unlike the Bush administration, which gave up on Palestinian democracy when Hamas won elections, Obama did not back away when the Islamists won. The Obama administration has demonstrated in word and deed a commitment to supporting Egyptian democracy far beyond anything previously shown by an American government.
That does not mean that Obama wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to win the elections. It takes a pretty skewed view of American politics to see any advantage whatsoever for Obama in Islamist electoral wins. Nor does anyone in Washington have any illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood -- if there's anybody here who actually believes that the Brotherhood is made up of liberal, Israel-loving, free-market, evangelical democrats then I haven't met them. Most just don't think that's the point. The Muslim Brotherhood has performed abysmally in power, and has many unattractive qualities, but it won the elections. Many of Egypt's problems are endemic to transitions from authoritarian regimes and almost every other player on the Egyptian political scene has contributed to the fiasco. Of course, Obama has worked with Morsy as the democratically elected president of Egypt. But that doesn't mean he "supports" or "backs" Morsy, any more than diplomatic relations with Britain means that Obama "backs" David Cameron.