Remember Cairo?

While Washington focuses on Syria and Iran, Egypt looks headed for a dangerous and destabilizing insurgency.

With the world focused on the crisis in Syria and the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian détente, the fact that Egypt's political situation is going from bad to worse has flown under the political radar. Much to the relief of the generals in Cairo -- and likely also some members of U.S. President Barack Obama's Middle East policy team -- the United States appears to be kicking another difficult regional policy decision down the road.

This is a mistake. By countenancing the July 3 coup and the military's subsequent crackdown on the supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, the United States may be helping to sow seeds that could ripen into a costly and deeply destabilizing insurgency for years to come.

The Obama administration responded to the military crackdown, which resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, with the diplomatic equivalent of a few light raps on the knuckles of Egypt's generals. It canceled joint military exercises with Egypt and announced that the White House's national security staff would begin a comprehensive review of bilateral aid. Since late August, a recommendation to suspend the majority of U.S. military assistance to Cairo has been sitting with the president. Meanwhile, Egyptian security forces have re-escalated their campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, raiding the movement's strongholds and arresting the few remaining senior Brotherhood figures not already in custody.

The Obama administration knows that things are not going well in Egypt. U.S. officials -- privately and rather halfheartedly -- tried to walk back Secretary of State John Kerry's bizarre claim that Egypt's military leaders were "restoring democracy" and have also delayed delivery of F-16 fighters to Egypt. However, Washington's overall response to the undoing of Egypt's democratic process has not come close to matching the gravity of the crisis.

The Obama administration's anemic response is indicative of the larger strategic drift of America's response to the 2011 Arab uprisings. In the immediate aftermath of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama admitted that the United States had not pushed hard enough for democracy in the Arab world, and he promised a new way of doing business in the region. At arguably every major juncture since then, however, whenever Washington has had the opportunity to demonstrate its support for genuine democracy in Egypt, it has instead opted for some version of the "authoritarian bargain" that characterized U.S. regional policy for decades.

Obama's address at the United Nations last week on Sept. 24 seemed to confirm the reality of American policy. In the world-weary tones that have come to define his speeches, Obama acknowledged in unusually explicit terms that democracy was secondary to Middle East policy and that security concerns and "core interests" would take precedence.

The Obama administration appears to be hoping that the Egyptian military, despite its brutality -- or perhaps because of it -- will provide a modicum of stability. This risks repeating the same mistakes of the pre-Arab Spring era: While a sense of calm has returned to parts of Cairo, the specter of renewed violence still looms large. An insurgency is gathering pace in the Sinai Peninsula, with a sharp increase in attacks on security personnel after Morsy's ouster. Meanwhile, the state has lost control of some pro-Morsy strongholds, requiring the use of overwhelming force in the towns of Dalga and Kerdasa in an attempt to regain its authority.

These flare-ups may prove to be only an initial taste of what's to come. The Algerian civil war, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands, offers a cautionary note: The conflict spiraled into full-scale violence not right after the military's January 1992 coup, but at least seven months later.

To make matters worse, the new Egyptian government does not appear to aspire to a return to the stagnant ancien régime, but something worse and more dangerous. Unlike Hosni Mubarak's regime -- which tolerated a certain level of dissent in parliament and the media -- this new political order is aiming for a far more all-encompassing grip on power, where even the mildest criticisms of the Egyptian Army can lead one to be branded a traitor. The sort of repression we are seeing today -- including four mass killings over the summer, one of which was the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history -- will have lasting consequences for Egyptian society. As the New York Times reported recently, "Neighbors have turned against one another and families have been torn apart" by political divisions.

With every passing week, Egypt's authoritarian order entrenches itself even further. On Sept. 23, Egypt's judiciary took yet another dangerous step, banning not just the Muslim Brotherhood but "all the activities that it participates in and any organization derived from it," as the presiding judge put it. Before this decision, there was the possibility that, while the Brotherhood would be dissolved, its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, might be permitted to operate. This now seems increasingly unlikely.

Instead of waiting for any number of negative scenarios to become a reality, the United States needs to move away from ad hoc crisis management and fundamentally shift its policy on Egypt.

There are no quick fixes, but that is no excuse for doing nothing.

First, the United States should suspend its military aid to Cairo. It should also outline the conditions under which its support can resume, which should include the reintegration of Morsy's supporters and anti-coup activists in the political process. This would reintroduce some clarity into U.S. policy and signal that foreign assistance to Egypt cannot continue in any form -- reduced, restructured, or otherwise -- under the present circumstances.

To maximize its leverage, Washington should coordinate this shift with its partners in Europe, Japan, and others in the region, such as Turkey and Qatar. Each individual piece of assistance may not sound like much, but taken together, they can have a real impact. Any International Monetary Fund deal for Egypt -- which along with associated grants and commitments could be worth up to $15 billion -- should be premised on tangible political progress involving all key parties.

Some Egypt watchers, like former U.S. National Security Council regional director Steven Simon, have argued that Washington has little leverage because Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have pledged to replace any shortfall in funding. This is simply not true. Riyadh and its neighbors can replace lost economic aid, but they cannot provide the military equipment and training that are essential for maintaining Egypt's most advanced tanks and fighter jets. Military-to-military relations between Washington and Cairo have been built over decades and cannot be undone without Egypt incurring considerable and likely prohibitive costs.

Saudi Arabia has also threatened to withhold security cooperation if the United States cuts aid. This is a bluff, and Obama should call the kingdom on it. Riyadh supports the Syrian rebels and backs counterterrorism efforts because such policies are squarely in Saudi Arabia's own interests, not because it's trying to please U.S. officials. It's the United States that has the leverage in this relationship: Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, is dependent on the U.S. security umbrella, particularly as it relates to the Iranian threat.

Ultimately, the United States needs to fundamentally reorder its strategic priorities in Egypt. In a new Brookings Doha Center paper, we argue for moving beyond the mythology of Camp David -- the idea that Washington needs to "buy" peace with Israel from Cairo -- and rejecting the idea that the Arab world faces a choice between security and democracy. Instead, it should act in accordance with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recognition back in 2011 that "the real choice is between reform and unrest." 

In the long run, U.S. strategic interests can only be preserved by supporting the emergence of a genuine democracy in Egypt. Countries that are accountable to their citizens are more stable because they offer citizens peaceful, legitimate means of expressing their grievances. The "stability" of authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, is brittle and illusory -- as the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia showed us in the early, euphoric days of the Arab Spring.

It is striking how such lessons, which had once been acknowledged by the Obama administration, can so easily be forgotten. The dangers, meanwhile, are becoming more and more difficult to ignore, whether in the form of authoritarian retrenchment, mounting insurgency, or the loss of Egyptian government control over its own territory. The temptation to look away from the Egyptian train wreck is undeniably powerful, but it is a temptation the United States must resist.

Photo: MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Why We Should No Longer Trust the Words 'Free and Fair'

International election monitors are devaluing their verdicts for political reasons. It's time to stop.

Whenever elections roll around in troubled democracies, international organizations and foreign governments can be counted on to step in and judge the results. These assessments carry significant weight: A "free and fair" stamp can improve a country's reputation and boost the legitimacy of the newly elected government. The problem is that, more often than not, these evaluations are wrong. They reflect the hidden interests of election monitors, their lack of understanding about the situation on the ground -- or both. There are plenty of examples out there, but the recent elections in Zimbabwe and Albania demonstrate how external assessments of elections as "free and fair" are all but meaningless.

Having dragged his feet for years on electoral reform and the scheduling of Zimbabwean elections, President Robert Mugabe announced in early June that the country's next presidential vote would take place on July 31, leaving less than two months for campaigning and the proper registration of voters. Initially, the opposition parties stated that they would boycott the elections. However, since opinion polls showed anti-Mugabe sentiment at an all-time high, they believed they had a reasonable chance of winning. What they hadn't anticipated was the degree of voter-roll manipulation. Voter registration in urban areas, where the opposition was strongest, topped out at 68 percent, and reached close to 100 percent in rural areas, where Mugabe is strongest. Mugabe thereby robbed the opposition of more than 1 million votes. Of course, the opposition itself is at least partly responsible for the outcome, for by choosing to participate in the election they legitimized it. With the help of other dubious tactics on voting day itself (such as bussing unregistered or outside voters into key areas to cast fraudulent votes), Mugabe was able to ensure himself an unexpected victory.

Despite this overt manipulation, international observers (including the African Union observers on the ground) declared these elections "mostly free and fair." Diplomatically, it may make sense to temper these assessments in order to avoid stoking further resentment between political parties or instigating potential deadlock should the losing party reject the results of a corrupt election -- both of which occurred after the previous Zimbabwean elections in 2008. By rubber-stamping the results of the 2013 elections, monitors could hope to legitimize them and therefore avoid a repeat of the 2008 deadlock. Looking the other way in cases like this can preserve a problematic but relatively peaceful status quo, allowing the international community to conveniently ignore problems with which it would rather not deal. It is easier, if both empirically and ethically wrong, to accept Mugabe as the "legitimate" winner rather than to entertain the possibility of a destabilized Zimbabwe.

Thus, outside institutions and governments approved Zimbabwe's elections in accordance with their own interests, despite its obvious irregularities. In other, less overtly problematic elections, the "free and fair" stamp is often awarded due to mistaken monitoring practices that focus myopically on voting day events, instead of on the long-term practices of governments that determine which options are even available on election day.

After years of nearly constant decline in most measures of democracy -- including electoral and judicial processes, and freedom of the media -- the international community touted this year's "free and fair" elections as the "rebirth" of Albania's democracy. Judging by the lack of violence, subsequent acceptance of final results by all parties, and the fact that elections resulted in a change of government, this assessment would appear to be warranted. However, a look beyond election day reveals that the election's outcome was the result of the scheming of the same (corrupt) political players using the now traditional, corrupt campaign tactics.

When the opposition candidate Edi Rama realized that he was failing to gain significant support, he panicked and, in a desperate move, sought the help of Ilir Meta, an erstwhile enemy who runs a small but influential center-left party. Meta is widely viewed as one of the most corrupt politicians in the Albanian government, having been forced to resign from his deputy prime minister position in January 2011 after he was secretly filmed negotiating kickbacks on government tenders.

Yet Rama's decision to make a deal with his rival paid off. During the campaign Meta made liberal use of intimidation and promises of patronage to ensure support, and his tactics were ultimately successful. The ruling Democratic Party lost heavily, while Meta's party made a stunning four-fold increase in parliamentary seats (from 4 to 16) that ultimately ensured the victory of Rama's coalition.

To make matters worse, Albania does not have real free media since every TV station or newspaper is affiliated with one of the political camps. Moreover, the Central Electoral Commission issued a decree whereby all TV stations had to air electoral coverage filmed by the parties, rather than independent coverage produced by the stations themselves. Party-controlled media do sometimes expose and criticize political corruption and misdeeds, but this is always partisan and rarely, if ever, independent journalism.

When Albanians went to the ballot box, the day proceeded relatively calmly. International organizations praised the conduct of the elections. But this assessment is based on a convenient snapshot of a single day. While previous elections in Albania were marred by obvious voting day irregularities, the now-institutionalized patronage system and long-term intimidation tactics made such overt actions largely unnecessary on election day.

Examples like these should make us question the way we assess elections in troubled democracies. Election monitoring has become suspect. Assessing the validity of elections requires abiding by a set of well-specified criteria -- regardless of political interests -- as well as looking beyond simple measures like the lack of violence, explicit intimidation at the polls, or the imperfect and simplistic statistics issued by electoral commissions, and into the subtle and more complex real-world choices that individuals actually face on election day as a result of the long-term strategies of their governments. Otherwise, supposedly "free and fair" elections often may not be what they seem.