Published : 2013-08-22 19:41
Updated : 2013-08-22 19:41
The bloody images coming out of Egypt invite Americans to pick white hats and black hats: to punish the generals who staged a coup and, rather than listen to American pleas for restraint, killed many demonstrators. Or to hold our noses and work to restore a democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, no matter how much we disagree with his Islamist agenda.
In determining what America should do, there’s no satisfying answer. But there is an obvious one: The U.S. shouldn’t cut off aid to Egypt. Despite the brutality of the military regime, Washington cannot back away from the nation at the heart of the Arab world. Here’s why:
Every country in the Middle East, every major power globally, has a stake in what happens now in Egypt. President Barack Obama has resisted growing pressure at home to cut off hundreds of millions in military aid to Egypt but has put on hold some financing for economic programs linked to the Egyptian government.
That’s as far as he should go toward interjecting the U.S. into the Egyptians’ internal struggle.
The reason to stay at arm’s length has nothing to do with how much diplomatic leverage that U.S. foreign aid buys. The generals haven’t listened and probably won’t listen to American entreaties for military restraint in pursuing Muslim Brotherhood militants. The generals won’t again surrender Egypt to Islamic extremists. Given that reality, an American exit from Cairo ― no money for the military, a renunciation of Morsi and the Brotherhood ― wouldn’t create a power void. A U.S. exit instead would quickly be supplanted by the growing opportunism and money of others who would relish greater influence in Cairo.
At the top of a long list: Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and, to some unknown extent, ruthless terror groups that ignore the tidy boundaries of nation-states.
A stable Egypt, an Egypt at peace with Israel, an Egypt that thrives economically, is crucial to American interests in the region.
An Egypt that instead slides into civil war becomes a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists ― enemies of the U.S. and its interests in the region. That threat is real: Witness how lethal attacks on Egyptian soldiers and police in the Sinai Peninsula have soared since Morsi’s ouster last month.
White hats? Black hats? Eli Shaked, formerly Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, told The New York Times: “We have to choose here not between the good guys and the bad guys ― we don’t have good guys. It is a situation where you have to choose who is less harmful.”
Since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, America has dealt with unsavory allies in Egypt, including the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, who reportedly may soon be released from government custody.
We don’t pick the leaders of Egypt. Egyptians do ― and not always at the ballot box. We suffer through their choices because walking away from the most populous Arab country, which sits at one of the Earth’s most important geopolitical locations, would be the worst of many bad alternatives. Egypt of late has been as sensible in its international dealings as it has been chaotic internally. For the U.S., the cold calculation ought to be that the former is more important than the latter.
Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president, lasted barely a year in office because he ruled as if he never would have to face another opponent in a free election. He aggressively expanded his powers and protected the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly from judicial oversight. He ignored vital secular groups and persecuted political opponents. He sidled up to the terrorists of Hamas in Gaza and welcomed then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
That’s why millions of Egyptians celebrated the sudden military takeover last month. And why many Egyptians strongly backed the generals’ campaign to clear the disruptive protesters, arrest Brotherhood leaders and stabilize the country to revive its reeling economy.
Cutting off U.S. aid to Egypt would be short-sighted and self-defeating. Aid may not buy clout. But it does buy access, and the possibility of influence. And if the current regime is repugnant, the next one, or the one after that, may listen to Washington’s suggestions on how to build a democracy. This is a time for the U.S. to make sure its voice will be heard by the Egyptian governments of future years.
A Saturday column by Rami G. Khouri in The Daily Star of Lebanon concluded: “It is no surprise that Egypt and other Arab lands have moved very quickly from revolutionary moments to civil wars. From these events, new and more rational political actors ultimately will emerge who can shape more stable governing orders ― after entire societies are frightened, embarrassed and then humbled by the experience of their homegrown killing sprees and political immaturity.”
An America that hopes to shape an Egypt that’s evolving, however violently, ought to prove its constancy. That argues for continuing U.S. aid and, when the sand settles, for continuing the possibility of U.S. influence.