Leading from Nowhere

Why is Washington being so quiet about the tumultuous upheaval in Egypt?

The ironies of the U.S. response to the situation in Egypt would be pretty entertaining if realities on the ground weren't quite so disturbing.

A year ago, who, other than those in the fever swamps of the Tea Party, would have thought that Egyptian street protesters would topple their first democratically elected president while accusing Barack Obama's administration of being too close to the Muslim Brotherhood? Who would have thought that on the Fourth of July, commentators across America would celebrate a military coup in Egypt as being synonymous with the actions of Washington's Founding Fathers? Who would have thought that the Wall Street Journal would suggest with a straight face that the real model for the Egyptian military should be the murderous regime of Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet?

Who would have thought that so many people could go to such lengths to describe the Egyptian military deposing a sitting president while deploying tanks in the street as something other than a coup? Who would have thought that David Brooks would respond to the fact that Egyptians have twice taken to the streets in waves of massive pro-democracy protests over the last two years as a sign that they "lack even the basic mental ingredients" for a democratic transition?

Egypt's interim government just took an important step in naming moderate economist Hazem el-Beblawi as prime minister and by setting a very brisk six-month timeline for elections, rewriting the Egyptian Constitution, and returning the country to civilian rule. From the body language, it seems pretty clear that the Egyptian military really doesn't want to be in the driver's seat for all this, but felt it had little choice but to act. That said, with the blood literally still on the streets from the killing of more than 50 Islamist protesters this week, it is equally clear that the choices for the Obama administration going forward are going to remain unpalatable.

The administration seems to largely agree with the Egyptian military and most of the street protesters that Mohamed Morsy had to go, but obviously cringed at the idea of a democratically elected president being deposed at gunpoint. President Obama said he was "deeply concerned" by the military's decision to seize power, but came well short of condemning the move.

Similarly, the administration thinks that cutting off aid to Egypt doesn't make much sense, even though U.S. law requires it in the case of military coups. (Pity White House spokesman Jay Carney being left to make the case that it is too early to tell whether it is a coup.)

Obama deserves credit for not publicly hyperventilating about the situation. Having the White House and State Department appear a bit distant is not the worst thing when dealing with a country that justifiably harbors pent-up resentment regarding a long history of U.S. meddling (and, yes, even billions of dollars in aid). Having Washington publicly take sides in a fluid, messy upheaval will not serve either capital well at this point.

But the choices will keep getting harder. Even if the administration wanted to, steering a democratic transition from afar is incredibly difficult. At the end of the day, there is no real substitute for a genuine Egyptian leadership that can cobble together a functioning coalition of parties and individuals willing to work together in the national interest. That is why Morsy's short tenure will ultimately be seen as such a tragically lost opportunity.

Washington wants the Egyptians to move quickly to re-establish functioning democracy, but speed is not always helpful when it comes to shaping a constitution that is genuinely inclusive or getting buy-in from moderate Islamist parties outraged by the killing of their supporters. Getting the Muslim Brotherhood back on board in a productive way will not happen overnight.

Egypt is in the middle of a historic, painful, difficult, and long-overdue political transition. All the parties involved need to allow time to reach some basic consensus. Indeed, the current situation in Afghanistan might have looked very different today if George W. Bush's administration had allowed time for a genuine national dialogue and reconciliation to take place rather than simply ramrodding through rapid elections and the anointment of President Hamid Karzai.

In many ways, this is going to be the hardest lesson for Washington to learn. Having treated the Middle East as the lone regional exception to its democracy-promotion efforts for decades, policymakers in Washington decided after the 9/11 attacks that democracy should be on the fast track in the Middle East -- or, that is to say, that it should be on a fast track where it is strategically expedient. Yet, it is exactly because this democratic dialogue was deferred for so long that these conversations to build consensus on everything from the role of religion in politics to youth unemployment will have to be given real time, as messy and problematic as that might be.

Unfortunately, though the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, and others are now stepping up to pour in billions of dollars of aid, and Beblawi, the new prime minister, appears a credible economic thinker, the economic pressure will only continue to mount as negotiations take place. Both tourists and foreign investment are going to stay away from Egypt until the situation calms considerably, and Egyptian leaders, regional allies, and the Obama administration will need to work quietly behind the scenes to make sure the economic situation can at least show some glimmer of promise to those in the streets.

Secretary of State John Kerry came into office hoping to secure sweeping diplomatic deals in the Middle East -- a worthy aspiration. But instead of grand diplomatic bargains, the hard work necessary to build a genuinely collective vision for Egypt's future needs to happen in the coffeehouses and ministries, in the mosques and government offices. Anyone who has ever been to a city council meeting knows those meetings aren't very sexy, but the hard truth is that you don't have democracy without building blocks. Given that Obama began his career as a community organizer, one hopes that the administration will finally embrace an approach to Egypt shaped from the ground up.

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The New Arab Awakening

Why Middle East moderates need to seize the opportunity in Egypt to craft a new political movement.

The rejection by Egyptians of their Islamist government marks a turning point -- not only for that country, but for the entire Middle East. Over the course of the past couple weeks, the Egyptian people have made a clear and powerful statement that political Islam cannot and should not be allowed to suppress the broader popular will for moderation and tolerance. Islamism, or any ideology for that matter, is no replacement for competent and responsible leadership. But let us not discount this momentous opportunity: the second Egyptian revolution is a bellwether for moderates in the region who should now seek to regain the initiative.

The Arab Spring has given voice to Arab peoples eager for dignity, for change, and for inclusion. But this call for tolerance risks being drowned out by an increase in violence, an unwelcome rise in sectarianism, the uncertain role of Islamist political groups, the growth in foreign meddling by regional aggressors, and a deepening economic crisis. The voice of moderation, the spirit of compassion, and the respect for others must be nurtured and protected. 

Now is the time to implement a new agenda -- endorsed and promoted by like-minded countries from within the region and beyond. This approach needs to represent an urgent, consistent, and linked effort to bolster Egypt's moderates and prevent extremists from taking any more advantage of the Arab Spring. The United Arab Emirates has just delivered $3 billion in aid to Egypt's interim government to help see it through this crisis, but that's just the beginning. What is needed is a broad, six-part program to craft a new moderate political agenda in the Middle East.

First, we need to resolutely oppose the rise in sectarian politics that serves only to sow division and conflict, rather than unity and dialogue. In many countries, from Syria to Iraq, we are witnessing a dangerous widening in the Sunni-Shiite divide and sharp divisions even within Sunni Islam. There has also been the persecution of Christian and other minorities, encouraged by those who see it as in their narrow political interest to provoke such tensions. We need to stand firm in support of the principles of religious tolerance and pluralism, both practicing them at home and advocating dialogue across the region.

Second, it is imperative that we do our utmost to prevent extremist groups from exploiting the emerging political vacuum to seize power and foster instability. Groups with well-organized international networks, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda, have used the transitions in the region as an opportunity to divert people to their cause and to impose a very narrow and dangerous interpretation of Islam. We must provide support to moderate voices and help build strong and competent institutions as an alternative to the vacant promises of political Islam.

Third, as part of our resolve to take on the extremists, we need to redouble our commitment to the empowerment of women. We must reassert every girl's right to an education, ensure women play leading roles in public and political life, and strive to protect women from violence and repression by ideologues who act in the name of a false religiosity. There can be no moderate political force in the Middle East without women at the heart of defining what kinds of societies emerge from the changes occurring across the region.

Fourth, we must inject a much greater sense of urgency into the search for a two-state solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The legitimate anger felt by many at the ongoing injustices suffered by the Palestinian people is being exploited by extremists to garner support for their own illegitimate causes. The moderates in the Arab world, in Israel, and in the Quartet, should grasp this opportunity to come together strongly behind the Arab Peace Initiative -- and be prepared to take some political risks in order to find a solution. Furthermore, the U.S. government must show leadership and resolve to reach a mutually acceptable solution with all parties. 

Fifth, vulnerable countries and revolutionary movements are at great risk of being undermined and influenced by extremist leaders in other countries. We must help these countries and movements to deal with problems like the additional pressures caused by refugee populations or by acting decisively to stem the flow of young men, many radicalized, from traveling to fight in Syria. And the international community must send a clear and unified message that extremist governments must refrain from meddling in the internal affairs of other countries or risk isolation or other, more profound, consequences.

Finally, if we've learned anything from Egypt and from the transitions in the region, it is that promulgating ideology is no replacement for creating opportunity. We need an urgent and concerted effort to provide education, create jobs, and build aspiration. Young people need to have a sense of purpose, but rampant unemployment and poverty in the region undercuts this message and provides fuel for radicalization. Extremist groups prey on these vulnerabilities. Our response should focus on promoting responsive and inclusive governance, investing in education and healthcare, and creating the conditions for people to be able to build better lives for themselves.

These are the pillars for success for moderates in the region. But while building these pillars takes time, Egypt needs our help now. Foreign assistance is a start, but a functioning government that provides needed services for its citizens and fosters economic growth is critical for long-term stability.

Of course, other nations across the region also face grave and immediate dangers -- and each country must be allowed to plot its own path.  But these countries should be encouraged and supported to accept, promote, and protect universal values of tolerance and openness. And they should not be asked to go it alone. The United Arab Emirates and like-minded friends in the international community should be there to support them in this urgent task.

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