On Sunday, June 30, millions of Egyptians turned out to protest President Mohamed Morsy and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime. Fed up with his disastrous economic mismanagement and systematic disregard for constitutional freedoms, the Egyptian people took to the streets to demand his resignation. "Leave! Leave!" they chanted in what may have been the largest demonstration in the history of the Middle East -- if not the world.
It was a breathtaking scene -- and potentially a watershed moment. Unlike the angry, disaffected youth who raged through the Arab Spring in 2011, these crowds, like those in the recent protests in Turkey, were made up of middle-class citizens protesting against a regime with an unpleasant tendency to trample on the rights of women, Christians, and Jews -- and to stifle the independence of the press and judiciary, ruining the economy in the process. While there has been some unfortunate violence, the Tamarod ("Rebel") movement is also organizing demonstrations, gathering signatures of no confidence in Morsy's government (it has gathered 22 million already), and threatening additional civil disobedience in the form of strikes if Morsy does not step down.
One would expect to find the United States standing firmly with these people. Surely, after our long and lonely search for secular and democratic partners in the Arab world, we could find some common ground with them. Surely, we could see the value of an administration in Egypt that could act as both a southern bulwark for Israel and a much-needed partner in countering the terrorist outposts in the Sinai and Horn of Africa. And surely, we could help support a government that could stand as an example for struggling states like Libya and Iran -- one that proves Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East are not predestined to live in oppressive theocracies.
Tragically, America has been relegated to the sidelines. The number of U.S. Embassy personnel has been reduced, and a travel warning has been issued for Americans in Egypt -- and for good reason. The people protesting in the streets were not only carrying anti-Morsy signs. They were also carrying signs with slogans like "Obama Supports Terrorism" and "Obama Supports Morsy," as well as pictures of the American ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, with a large red "X" through her face. Some of these were set on fire. On Friday, Andrew Driscoll Pochter, an American college student who was in Egypt to teach English to schoolchildren, was stabbed to death as he took pictures of the protesters.
In what has to be one of the most stunning diplomatic failures in recent memory, the United States is -- in both perception and reality -- entrenched as the partner of a repressive, Islamist regime and the enemy of the secular, pro-democracy opposition.
It did not have to be this way.
When Morsy was elected a little more than a year ago, President Barack Obama could have expressed strong reservations about a member of the Muslim Brotherhood taking control of the country. He should have also been more aggressive about using American aid to extract concessions from the Egyptian government on human rights, as well as economic and political reform. Instead, Obama made a personal call to congratulate Morsy, characterized his election as a "milestone" in Egypt's progress toward democracy, and pledged $1 billion in U.S. taxpayer-funded aid. In the ensuing months, Morsy received a steady stream of assistance from the United States in the form of arms sales, unconditional financial aid, and visits from high-level officials such as Secretary of State John Kerry -- all of which enhanced the strength and legitimacy of his regime.