Why Washington's policy toward Cairo is pretty spot on (except for a few things).
In March 2011, Sunni Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, swept over the bridge into Bahrain to help crush the predominantly Shiite but democratic and reform-oriented protest movement. The wide-ranging campaign of sectarian repression that followed destroyed a U.S.-facilitated reconciliation mission between the Bahraini crown prince and the leading opposition parties.
Washington then watched as the inevitable unfolded in a key Gulf ally -- repression with impunity, persistent instability, rampant sectarianism, the likely permanent delegitimization of the regime, and a denunciation of the U.S. role by both sides. Its failure to respond defined American hypocrisy about the Arab uprisings in the eyes of many across the region, and helped give a green light to autocrats to crack down on their challengers. More than two years later, Bahrain's continued street protests and growing radicalism suggests how little the crackdown served the cause of stability.
While events in Cairo are of course very different, the risks for Washington are similar. Once again, the United States seems helpless as a crucial ally -- in this case the Egyptian military -- recklessly flaunts democratic norms. The persistent instability and disillusionment with the democratic process likely to follow the coup was obvious even before this week's violent clashes and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's alarming call for mass protests in support of a new "war on terror" against the Muslim Brotherhood. Once again, Washington seems torn between its hope for democratization on the one hand, and its distaste for the aggrieved parties (Muslim Brothers in Cairo, possibly Iran-backed Shiites in Bahrain) and strategic ties to the ascendant authoritarians on the other.
Faced with this dilemma, Washington has tried to hide. President Barack Obama's administration will reportedly tell lawmakers that it does not consider an obvious coup in Cairo to be a coup, and that its annual aid to Egypt will keep flowing. Secretary of State John Kerry bafflingly mused that the military might have prevented a civil war, which is a defensible analytical position but not the sort of thing that a senior U.S. official should be saying aloud. Finally, the White House belatedly announced it was suspending the delivery of four F-16s to the Egyptian military -- but declined to suspend a major joint military exercise or its $1.3 billion in annual aid.
It's easy to understand why the United States hedged its bets. The mass protests on June 30, the July 3 coup, the escalating Muslim Brotherhood protests, the dissolution of virtually all political institutions, and this week's seemingly unstoppable charge toward full-scale repression have seemingly shattered America's roadmap for the country's transition to democracy. With the military in charge and politics driven by competing street protests, there are no longer any established rules to the political game. And things weren't going well even before the coup: Egypt's economy was in free-fall, street clashes were increasingly violent, and many Egyptians were deeply alarmed by the unilateral and majoritarian behavior of Mohamed Morsy's government.
It's not like Egyptians particularly want Washington to do anything, either. Its politicians and public figures instead unanimously tell the United States to buzz off and mind its own business. The wave of anti-Americanism that swept Cairo's streets in the wake of the military takeover, no matter how politically motivated, has to be disturbing for a White House that prided itself on reaching out to newly empowered Arab publics. But quite frankly, a lot of people in Washington seem downright relieved to be rid of the troublesome Muslim Brotherhood and the endless crises of attempted democratization, and happy to just get back to working with a friendly military regime. A new Mubarakism may not be pretty, but it doesn't look so bad to a lot of Americans exhausted by the region's chaos.
At this point, the number of people who really believe the United States supports Egyptian democracy would probably fit around a Washington think-tank conference room table. But I would be one of those around that table -- U.S. policy toward Egypt isn't quite the disaster it appears. America's goal of helping to create an institutionalized Egyptian democracy was the right one, and its low-key approach accurately reflected its limited ability to shape events. U.S. officials understood that Egypt's future would be shaped by Egyptians, and that not many Egyptians anxiously awaited a White House statement to decide what to think about their political crisis.
I continue to believe that until June 30, the United States had done about as well as it could have done with its Egypt policy. Its mistakes, like its positive influence, have been at the margins. It might have spoken out more forcefully at some points and been more even-handed in its rhetoric at others, but such tinkering with public messaging would have made no actual difference in Egyptian politics. I've said it before and will say it again: The United States has been absolutely right to call for elections and the transfer of power to civilian rule, to push for the inclusion of Islamists, to focus on the democratic process and not support any political trend, and not to grandstand or take ownership of the politics of a country with zero appetite for American guidance.
None of those core principles should change today. There is no going back to Mubarakism: Egypt and the entire Middle East have changed too much for paternalistic authoritarianism to be easily restored. The United States should maintain principled support for a real democratic transition in Egypt, just as it has been trying to do for the last two-and-a-half years. The core interests it seeks to protect, whether Israel's security, the reliability of the Suez Canal, or broad regional cooperation will not be served by the unending turbulence and perpetual crisis which are the alternative to meaningful democratic consolidation.
So what does all this mean in practice for America's Egypt policy? For one, Washington should call the coup a coup and suspend military aid, while holding open the door for that verdict to change if Egypt adheres to a rapid and real return to civilian rule. It should not burn its relationship with the Egyptian military with empty words, but it should make clear the Egyptian military has to do more than take Washington's phone calls -- it has to take its advice seriously. The suspension of delivery of F-16s announced yesterday should -- but probably won't -- be followed by real conditionality on further aid disbursement, as is currently being discussed in Congress.
Washington should also push for quick parliamentary and presidential elections, with international monitoring to assure that they are free and fair. That will sound rather empty, given that it implies accepting the abolition of the previous democratic outcomes. But little good would be served by pushing for restoring Morsy to office at this point: The military has made it clear that it's far too late for that, and the Brotherhood's behavior on the streets -- including its call to march on the U.S. Embassy -- make it unpalatable to support such a move. But the United States should push hard to end the detention and trial of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members and to insist upon their right to participate in political life. And Washington should make absolutely clear that it rejects the return to emergency law or abuses under the name of a "war on terror," which some Egyptians worry is in the cards.
Egypt matters too much for Washington to allow it to slide off the precipice for which it is heading. The United States can't and shouldn't try to control Egyptian politics, but it should use what influence it has to try and push its ally back onto a democratic path.
Such calls to stay the course on Egypt will ring hollow for many, and seem wrongheaded to others. But this is the time for President Barack Obama to prove that he really believed what he has so often said about the urgency of democratic change in the Arab world and America's willingness to reverse decades of past support for authoritarian regimes.
Egypt's revolution, the cornerstone of the Arab uprising and the harbinger of the possibility of meaningful democratic transformation, cannot be allowed to degenerate into repression and sullen despotism justified in the name of a "war on terror." Washington might not be able to stop it, but it has to at least try.
JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images