President Barack Obama has decided not to bring his influence to bear on Egypt. In a statement on Thursday, he spoke out against this week’s violence in the country and cancelled forthcoming joint military exercises, declaring that “our traditional co-operation cannot continue as usual.” But in effect, business as usual was what he championed. These were largely symbolic gestures that did not undermine implicit US support for the Egyptian military.
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America’s link to the generals is longstanding. That is the backdrop for the decision to acquiesce in July’s military coup against the Egyptian president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. It was a significant foreign policy misstep, compounded by the Obama administration’s subsequent statements and decisions. In early August John Kerry, secretary of state, described the military as “restoring democracy”. At the time it was incorrect. This week, it has become a stain on the White House.
On Wednesday the Egyptian authorities moved against the Brotherhood, who had organised protests against the coup. The violence escalated; some of the opposition were armed. More than 500 people have died. The Islamists have attacked churches and police stations across the country. The pro-military and pro-Brotherhood factions are now too polarised for any compromise to take shape. How can you broker a deal when the two sides are digging in deeper?
The issue is less about whether or not there was a military coup in July but rather why the revolution in 2011 failed to take root. Depending on how you look at it, the revolution was incomplete, unsuccessful, or, more cynically, it never got rolling to begin with. That’s not a narrative that people like to hear. The military wasn’t “restoring democracy” in July because democracy never managed to take root in the first place; the military didn’t give up power. There was change – some generals were replaced – and there was hope for more. But to say the military ever reported to the new administration and then overthrew it is fiction. The military retained enormous political and budgetary authority, and the Brotherhood-written constitution codified its power.
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Still, there was a real possibility that things would improve, albeit incrementally, as happened in Turkey in the 1990s. An elected government could have come in, beholden to the military, but over time, it could have stripped the military of its vested powers and the country could have lurched towards true democracy. This is the Egypt spring scenario: a trajectory that was plausible had Mr Morsi built out a broad governing coalition capable of addressing Egypt’s underlying power structure. But in November 2012 Mr Morsi declared himself above the law and served as the mouthpiece for an organisation that was (and is) in many ways anti-democratic, with attacks on churches and intimidation of its critics.
After the military’s actions in the past few weeks, there is no going back. For the US government, for Mohamed ElBaradei, for the Saudis and Emeratis, for everyone who was on board with the interim government, the chance for a settlement between the post-coup regime and the Brotherhood has evaporated. The majority either backs the military or the Brotherhood. Excluded from politics, the Brotherhood and its supporters will become more radicalised.
The military is playing to its base, which views the Brotherhood as a threat. The few who hoped to bridge the gap between the two sides can no longer play a role. The best that can be said is that Egypt is not Syria – civil war is unlikely. The military retains sufficient power to ensure the country stays together. It can put a floor under potential instability.
While Washington has had virtually no influence on developments in Egypt over the past six weeks, it does have leverage. If it wants to push the government to end the crackdowns and commit to free, fair elections and real transition by a near-term date, it could threaten to rescind aid or suspend military co-operation. Today, army commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is far too distracted to be concerned with or influenced by the US. But it will eventually matter to Egypt – and it would immediately send a signal to other powers.
Whether the US would really be willing to make good on these threats – moves that could leave Egypt’s military less equipped to maintain stability – is another story. Based on Mr Obama’s comments on Thursday, he will cling to the status quo as long as it remains acceptable. In Syria, the US has dragged its feet in providing support to the opposition. In Egypt it will drag its feet in unwinding its support of the military. In Syria, central authority has eroded into chaos, with neither side able to take firm control of the country. In Egypt, the recent chaos has exposed that a central authority has had firm control all along.
The Egypt spring was always a lofty goal, requiring the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr Morsi not to drop the baton. All three did. And by being too passive, the US didn’t do them any favours. After this week, any flicker of hope that the Egypt spring is within reach has been extinguished.
The writer is president of Eurasia Group