Why does Washington still think it can control what happens in Egypt?

Here we go again. It has been barely a week since the Egyptian military removed Mohamed Morsy from power, and Washington is already knee-deep in the blame game over who's responsible for the current mess and what America must do to fix it.

The question of "Who lost [insert country here]?" goes back at least to the communist takeover of China in 1949, when American conservatives accused Harry Truman's administration of abandoning Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces. But the "Who lost" formulation has resurfaced with increasing frequency in the last few years -- over Iraq, over Syria, and now over Egypt, as the United States struggles to adapt to the rapidly shifting political situation there.

Most fingers are pointing at Barack Obama's administration. The U.S. president was either too soft on the Muslim Brotherhood and/or not tough enough on the generals. Indeed, right now we have an amen chorus urging a cutoff of assistance to Egypt until the generals turn into democrats or get out of the way and allow others to. No surprise here. Just another example of Obama's abdication of American leadership and leading from behind, right? Or, if Obama is not a juicy-enough target, you can also fault the U.S. ambassador's ill-timed remarks about the value of elections over street demonstrations, or Secretary of State John Kerry's July 4 aquatic adventures in Nantucket.

Some of this is just U.S. domestic politics. But much has to do with the belief that more American leadership is always better than less and the U.S. need to seek clear solutions in situations where, more often than not, only confused outcomes are available.

The primary reason for Egypt's current travails has much more to do with the choices Egyptians have made and the circumstances those choices have created than the policies of the Obama administration, let alone any sins of omission and commission.

Ground Control to Major Tom: Egypt isn't a democracy, and it's not going to be anytime soon. The two most powerful forces in the country -- the military and the Muslim Brotherhood -- are the least democratic, and the liberal, secular, less radical Islamists are so far incapable of organizing politically, let alone running the country.

There's little the United States could have done over the past 18 months that would have altered the basic narrative that has played out. Simply put, what's happening in Egypt isn't Obama's fault. Nor can he fix it. And based on that judgment, the United States doesn't need a fundamental reassessment and dramatic change in its Egypt policy.

Take the Egyptian military. Perhaps Obama believed too much in its capacity to orchestrate an effective transition to civilian rule. But the United States was already deeply locked into an investment trap with the generals from which it was almost impossible to escape. For decades, America funneled military and economic aid to an authoritarian Egypt in an effort to protect the peace treaty with Israel, keep Hosni Mubarak aligned with U.S. policy, fight terrorism, and protect the Suez Canal. And the Mubarak regime didn't even pretend to function according to democratic rules. So how would the United States now rationalize cutting off aid to Egypt as it struggles to cope with a democratic transition? And can America afford to lose the leverage it has with Egypt's military, right now the only relatively reliable actor on the Egyptian stage? That leverage, which flows from the U.S. military's relationship with Egypt's armed forces, is considerable to maintaining the generals' prestige and weapons inventory. But it works both ways. America needs Egypt's military and intelligence services too -- for countering terrorism, keeping Egypt-Israel relations stable, and containing Iran.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, regardless of whether the Obama administration was naive to believe that the responsibilities of governing might transform an inherently anti-democratic movement into something else, how could it walk away from a fair, free, and historic election that produced the first civilian president in Egypt's history? Doing so would have put the administration in the untenable position of arguing for democracy only if the "right" party wins. And it's hard to see what Washington could have done to change Morsy's approach to the presidency once he took office. Joining the Brotherhood isn't like joining a health club -- it's a way of life with an all-encompassing worldview.

The whole point of the Arab Awakening was that it decentralized politics -- stripping it from autocrats so that a variety of actors could participate. In so doing, it legitimized them. And, however turbulent, politics in Egypt are now more credible than at any time since the early 20th century. Public opinion, smaller parties like the Salafi al-Nour Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood now matter. The last thing America should do is infantilize the Egyptians and others by pretending it knows what's best and believing it can fix Egypt's admittedly broken house. Only Egyptians can make those repairs.

Even if the United States had more sway over outcomes in Egypt than it actually does, neatly reconciling American values and interests would be nearly impossible. Egyptians -- the elite and the broader public -- can't reconcile their own conflicting ideologies with the need for effective governance, basic security, and prosperity. Why does America think it can? Besides, at the moment, Egypt lacks the three basic elements around which democratic polities are built: leaders who prioritize national interests above sectarian interests; legitimate, accountable, and authoritative institutions; and a mechanism for resolving disputes without violence.

The fact is that U.S. interests -- on terrorism, Israel, Iran, and the like -- require a close relationship with the generals. And though standing up for democracy is one of America's interests, there is very little it can do now to force the Egyptians to produce one. The last thing the United States needs is to try to force a transition to civilian rule that's again botched and mismanaged. And how serious about democratization is America really? In a real democracy, the military doesn't trump civilian authority, make all national security decisions, and run its own economy with an offline budget. Yet the Egyptian military does all three.

Right now, we don't need a major reassessment of U.S. policy toward Egypt or a lot of drama involving threats to cut off aid. And we don't need to turn the Egyptian story into some kind of morality play that pits the forces of darkness (the Islamists) against the forces of light (the military and public). U.S. policy toward Egypt isn't constrained by lack of courage or imagination. It's limited by Egyptian realities and American interests.

The United States needs to pay more attention to those realities, identify a set of principles of democratic governance, and articulate them clearly and consistently, both publicly and privately at the highest levels. Hold the generals to those standards, but give the process time to congeal -- and if it doesn't and the military is the primary reason, then ratchet up the pressure. But beating up the Obama administration (or ourselves) for that matter, believing that Egypt was Washington's to lose or that America is a central actor in Egypt's internal drama, won't get us anywhere.

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Reality Check

Who Won the Coup?

Egypt is a mess, but at least Bashar al-Assad is happy.

The Roman historian Tacitus was right. The best day after the death of a bad emperor is probably the first day.

The Egyptian military's do-over coup against the Morsy government and the Muslim Brotherhood exhilarated and thrilled millions of Egyptians.

But a move against a democratically elected government -- regardless of how incompetent, dysfunctional, and misdirected -- carries serious consequences for the future of Egypt and the region.

So who won and who lost?

Egypt the movie has been playing for about five millennia now. And it's way too early to make definitive predictions. Right now, there can be no undisputed winners. Still, there are some parties that have fared better than others. Call them "winners with asterisks." Losers are a bit easier to identify. So let's have a go.

Winners with Asterisks

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF): Let's give credit where credit is due. Amid the dysfunction and incompetence that seem to dominate the region, the Egyptian military really did know how to pull off a coup -- quickly, relatively bloodlessly, and with tough, aggressive, and apparently effective follow-up.

Today, the Muslim Brotherhood struck back with large street demonstrations that turned violent. Whether this challenge can be sustained is unclear; but it has put the two least democratic forces in the country on a collision course, with the public backing the army. Indeed, so far the military has the support and encouragement of the vast majority of those Egyptians who took to the streets in recent days.

But let's not kid ourselves either. Orchestrating a coup is one thing; governing and transitioning to democracy is another. Last time around, the military was responsible for bumbling, fumbling, and downright cruelty -- imposing "virginity tests" on women, detaining and imprisoning thousands on political grounds, and killing Egyptians.

And this time the SCAF has bought itself a much tougher assignment. Pressuring Mubarak the authoritarian may not have been simple, but leading another transition to democratic rule and delivering on good governance at the same time may be mission impossible.

Expectations will be running high: get the economy back on track; fix the security situation but pay attention to human rights and the rule of law; preside over a civilian transition process that can draft a credible constitution and a new electoral law; and allow fair and free parliamentary and then presidential elections.

And who is going to do all this? An interim government headed by a mild-mannered jurist, who will be contending with a divided and unorganized secular and liberal opposition; a sullen, aggrieved, and angry group of Muslim Brotherhood supporters; and a large, powerful, and anti-democratic Egyptian bureaucracy left over from the Mubarak days that wants to preserve its status.

Indeed, the real challenge may be that the military doesn't want to run the country. Who would? It wants to preserve its privileges, yet it will have no choice but to remain the dominant power in the country until some more credible structure can be found. And even if the uniforms don't govern, they will still reign over national security policy with their offline budget and special economic and financial advantages. And what kind of democracy will that be?

The Egyptian Public (or at least a fair portion of it): Egypt was headed for failed-state status under a badly managed post-Mubarak transition and the authoritarian and incompetent behavior of the Morsy government. So, in another dramatic demonstration of sheer popular will, the people, aided by a handful of social media activists, took to the streets to put their collective foot down. The Morsy government recognized that red light too late; the military saw it earlier and, when it turned green, created a new reality.

Will this new reality prove better than the old one? And will it bring more prosperity, more security, and a semblance of democratic life? Right now, there's no way to know. Before July 3, Egypt was headed for a dead end. Now, Egypt has another shot to get things right. Still, the street by itself can't deliver a better future. The street expresses what people want. Politics and governance is what they get. The key unknown is whether the secular, liberal, and Islamist opposition that opposed Morsy can take advantage of the new political space and opportunity the people have provided.

Al Qaeda's Minions: One hope loosed by the so-called Arab Spring was that Islamist parties would be able to participate in the new democratic politics and that, if they played by the rules, they would be able to gain power through ballots not bullets. A moderate, centrist, political Islam would serve as a rebuke to al Qaeda's worldview. I remember analysts in 2011 and 2012 making a big deal of this point as millions of Arabs forced the region's authoritarians to cede power largely through nonviolence. This seemed a very important development, turning the extremists' millennial philosophy on its head.

Well, now the people have done it again, although this time they have thrown out a freely and fairly elected Islamist party. And the military is finishing the job by arresting opponents, closing offices, and taking over media outlets. If this continues, score one for the bad guys. Extremists everywhere will proclaim "I told you so," and they will soon have even greater success in their attempts to sow anger, despair, and violence. A new myth -- that there can be no compromise with peaceful politics -- will empower Islamists, and 2013 will emerge as another milestone in the never-ending secular conspiracy to deny Islam its rightful place.

Bashar al-Assad: Assad must be having a good chuckle. Egypt is a huge distraction from the Syrian civil war, and the more preoccupied the international community is with other messes, the less it will focus on the one he's making.

More than that, the Egyptian people and the military are hammering the Muslim Brotherhood, the very same terrorists and extremists Assad claims were the real cause of the rebellion against his rule. In his warped conception of reality, he and his military are defending Syria against the same enemies that Egypt is fighting now. In fact, if the SCAF's move against the Egyptian Brothers leads to more radicalism in the Syrian opposition, so much the better for Assad's propaganda machine.

Israel: For the Israelis, the only thing worse than the Morsy government was an Egypt with no government. Throughout it all, the Israelis have maintained their close ties to the Egyptian military. So for now, I'd put the Israelis in the "win" column. Maybe the Egyptian military will be induced to pay greater attention to lawless Sinai; and certainly Israel won't object to a less friendly approach to Hamas in Gaza. Still, whatever the future brings -- military government or democratic polity -- the Egyptian-Israeli relationship will remain a cold one, pending some resolution of the Palestinian issue.

The Losers

Morsy and the Brothers: I dare say there will be no second act for Mohamed Morsy in Egyptian politics. He's got no charisma, no political smarts, and no credible case to make for a political future. It's more than likely jail, exile, or the underground for him -- a fate that may await the top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, too. Could the military show magnanimity by offering the Brothers a way back, a role in the reconciliation process and in the democratic transition that we hope will follow? It would be a smart play. Would Morsy and the Brothers accept junior status in the next governing structure? What if they chose to compete in the next parliamentary elections and won a sizeable number of seats?

We're dreaming if we believe we've seen the last of the Brothers. Egypt is a traditional Muslim country. And however incompetent the Brotherhood was at governance, it can organize and do politics. The Brotherhood not only retains the capacity to use violence, it will retain influence if the military stumbles and the more secular and liberal opposition can't deliver. Remember, the Brothers play the long game. And in analyzing what went wrong with Morsy 1.0, the senior leadership may well decide to return to that strategy.

Hamas: The travails of Morsy and the Brothers will erode the deep bench of Islamists that Hamas in Gaza thought it was assembling in its effort to consolidate control, oppose Fatah, and play its own long game. With Assad embattled and Turkey's Erdogan under pressure at home, Hamas is left with Iran and Qatar as its only semi-reliable supporters. The Egyptian military has already closed the Rafah border crossing, and there's no doubt there will be more tough times ahead for the Palestinian Islamists. But if the past is any guide, those tough times won't be painful enough to force Hamas to moderate its views on a real partnership with Fatah. Still, if the so-called peace process actually moves forward, Morsy's ouster could strengthen Abbas' hand as he seeks to co-opt and outmaneuver Hamas.

Anne Patterson: Full disclosure, I know and admire Anne Patterson, who has been serving as the U.S. ambassador in Cairo for two years. She's smart and capable. And as a result of President Obama's confused policies, she's a convenient target for the "Who lost Egypt?" attacks by Republicans and others. If the Egyptian public believed Obama was in bed with the Brothers, that's not her fault -- a few badly timed public statements about faith in elections rather than anti-Morsy protests notwithstanding.

We believe in the ballot box. The administration's instincts about the Brothers turned out to be wrong. The Muslim Brotherhood wasn't going to become inclusive or more moderate under the pressure of governing -- just the opposite. As they were attacked by the opposition, the conspiratorial mindset they had developed over years of living underground kicked in. Washington either couldn't or didn't want to see this. Anne Patterson isn't the reason we didn't get our Egypt policy right. But I'm concerned that, like former Ambassador April Glaspie, who was unfairly blamed for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, she'll take the hit.

The United States: I really struggled with where to put the Obama administration: Did it win or lose when Mubarak fell? And is it winning or losing now, after the SCAF coup? The Suez Canal is open; the U.S.-Egyptian military and intelligence relationship is intact; the peace treaty with Israel survives.

And, yet, there's something not right about U.S. policy toward Egypt. We are disliked by just about everyone. Maybe we were too weak the first time around in telling the military that it needed to do a better job of managing the transition democratically. We were definitely too slow in making our views known about Morsy's ham-handed governance.

And, now, as we wrestle with how to react to the SCAF's coup, we still can't find the balance between protecting our interests and speaking up for our values. Perhaps they will always remain at war with one another, particularly in a situation where stability, however superficial, plays such an important role in our thinking. We may have learned something from our years of dancing with Egypt's military. And perhaps we'll be tougher with our partner this time around. But we will keep dancing -- and probably cheek-to-cheek.

The Future

The more I think about the balance sheet in Egypt, the more it seems to me that there are no quick or easy solutions, just outcomes; no unqualified winners, just those who manage to survive and stay on top -- sometimes for a good long while.

If the Egyptian people are ever to really win, they'll need three things that they just don't have right now: leaders who think in terms of what's best for the country, not just for their narrow religious or corporatist group; institutions that are legitimate, inclusive, and accountable; and some mechanism that can contain the most divisive and volatile debates so that they don't spill out into the streets, paralyze the country, and lead to violence.

I don't see that now. But perhaps someday. And then we'll be able to prove Tacitus wrong.

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