Hold Your Nose

08.17.13

It’s Time to Hold Our Nose and Back Egypt’s Military

If Islamists regain control in Egypt, all hope for democracy is lost. So as unsavory as it may feel, working with the moderate-aligned military is our only hope, writes Leslie H. Gelb.

Let’s get real and tamp down the moral posturing about democracy in Egypt. Freely elected President Morsi and his now-deposed Muslim Brotherhood government weren’t practicing democracy. They were co-opting the laws and slowly destroying all possible opposition. Besides, they were aligning with America’s jihadist enemies in Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere. Egypt’s military leaders, no democratic sweethearts either, are aligned with moderates, need Washington more than the Islamists, and back U.S. interests on the Suez Canal and Israel. Americans rightly can’t stand the military street slaughters. For sure, bloody casualties will mount. But the United States has some modest chance to influence the military in right directions. It has little or no chance of saving Egypt for democracy if the Islamists return to power.

In these circumstances, the worst President Obama can do is to press ahead on his rhetoric of a couple weeks ago when he demanded that the Egyptian military “move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government.” Alas, these words hark back to his urgings of two years ago following dictator Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. The last thing Obama should do now is to repeat this mistake. Egypt wasn’t nearly ready for democracy then, and the call for “elections” merely opened the door to power for the best organized and least truly democratic elements in Egyptian society: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. They alone were organized to turn out the votes. Then, like today, the moderates were disorganized and divided. To press for hasty new elections now would simply guarantee return to power of those who would slowly but surely destroy all chances of a future real democracy.

Members of Congress and a commentariat enthralled mostly by Anthony Weiner–like stories and appalled by complexities wear blinders to these realities. They talk only about the military coup and the street killings—you know, the news. God love Americans. They are appalled by the bloodshed. But America’s leaders tell them little about anything else. Morsi’s strangling of opposition rights and the courts’ ability to review his key decisions have been neglected in the media. There is no “news” here. It is all happening below the radar, in slow motion. Elections, whatever the realities, are great. Coups, whatever the realities, are bad. End of story.

Where are the reminders about how President George W. Bush paved the way for free elections in the Gaza Strip, how Hamas won, and how, then, democracy there came to an end and terrorism made a full comeback? Where are the explanations of what is happening in the great nation of Turkey? Democratically elected Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan has slowly but surely jailed Turkey’s general officer corps, the guardians of secular society, and begun Islamizing the country while curtailing democratic rights. Which is worse: when the military overthrows democratically elected governments, no matter how undemocratic, or when a democratically elected government destroys democracy with “legitimate” power? These are not questions America’s commentariat or elected representatives in Congress care to speak of, let alone grapple with.

The Islamists understand American culture far better than the Egyptian moderates, and they’re much better propagandists. They know how deeply Americans are repelled by the killings, so don’t put it past them to provoke and stage the killings for the television cameras. They want martyrs. They want the cameras and the carnage, and Americans are reacting like good Americans: with outrage.

There is but one, difficult way out: the Obama team, on a private basis, has to help the military and the moderates frame a viable plan and process for establishing democracy in Egypt, and start implementing it as soon as possible.

There’s a lot of back-and-forth in the weekend newspapers about which side is responsible for the present carnage. It seems the military did reject a diplomatic proposal for the Brotherhood to limit protests and for the military to refrain from using force. And while this rejection was harsh, it was also understandable. The Brotherhood’s strategy is to get foreign countries to tie the military’s hands while allowing some levels of Brotherhood protest to continue in the streets. And if such a limited truce were to collapse, Brotherhood strategy may well be to provide the martyrs in the streets to further isolate the military from diplomatic support. Washington should be urging restraint on Egyptian military leaders. But again, the reality is that the Brotherhood is intent on creating chaos, and though it’s not nice to say, the military is doing what a lot of governments around the world would do under the same conditions.

Administration officials say they understand all these considerations, and that Obama is trying to be pragmatic, but that surging pressures about the killings are driving him to actions he knows will backfire. He’s taken modest measures so far, cutting off aircraft deliveries and joint military exercises and calling for an end to violence. But officials say he won’t be able to hold this line for long; a tougher one is already being signaled. In private phone conversations with interim government officials, Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly warned against military brutality. And they know the contents of these rough exchanges will soon spill into the public domain. Then a collapse of communications between Washington and Cairo becomes inevitable, as does the loss of all possible influence for the good. The worst thing we could do would be to cut off military assistance, thereby humiliating the Egyptian government and driving the relationship into crisis. That’s the clear message conveyed to the White House from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, the last of America’s Arab friends.

There is but one, difficult way out: the Obama team, on a private basis, has to help the military and the moderates frame a viable plan and process for establishing democracy in Egypt, and start implementing it as soon as possible. That requires less corrupt and better laws and more efficient and fair administration of power. Elections, first local and then national, should be scheduled for about two years from now. As soon as possible, the security forces have to stop shooting the street protesters and try simply to contain the violence. The White House must persuade them that they cannot kill their way to stability. They have to regain the trust of their own people and of the world by offering a clear and workable plan to create democracy. They’ve got to show they can do what Morsi had no intention of doing: building democratic institutions and culture from the ground up.

Something along these lines is the only path for the military and the moderates to regain American and world confidence. Otherwise, Obama will be obliged to do what he knows will fail—simply cut off ties to democracy’s one last, slim hope in Egypt.