America Has Nowhere to Go on Egypt

Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Cairo and his seeming endorsement of the military rulers there have drawn withering criticism from across the political spectrum. Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have blasted the White House for its failure to stand up for democratic principles and for the lack of clarity in its policy toward Egypt.

The United States government has succeeded in alienating just about every element in Egypt’s political constellation: Islamists, liberals, the military and much of Egypt’s public, too. This is no easy feat.

There’s no doubt that American policy toward Egypt and the political turbulence in the Middle East has lacked direction. Yet the Obama administration’s approach — working with, not against the military, and essentially giving up on any serious effort on democratic reform — is both logical and necessary.

First, there is almost no way right now that Washington can have a significant impact on influencing the course of Egyptian politics. The generals, backed by a significant portion of the Egyptian public, made a decision earlier this year that Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood represented a fundamental threat to their very conception of Egypt and its future.

The army’s move was not simply a power grab, even though Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi and others in the military elite represent a cadre with privileges to protect. Nor was it merely a temporary maneuver. It was strategic.

And in those circumstances — a life-or-death struggle for Egypt’s soul — America’s advice and preaching would have had little impact. Whether the United States cut or continued aid wasn’t going to have much impact when the powers-that-be thought the future of their country was at stake.

Second, Egypt has not been heading toward any meaningful form of democracy; there is no momentum for America to add to. For the past several years, the country has been in the hands of its two least democratic forces — the Brotherhood and the military. The liberal and partly secular opposition that drove the protests in Tahrir Square that brought down President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 is unable to organize effectively to present a third way. No amount of pressure from the outside can change this reality.

Mr. Mubarak is gone, but the illiberal bureaucratic state over which he presided remains intact. Despite our faith in elections and hope for a Hollywood-style democratic ending, there’s little we can do to change that.

The United States could stand on principle, cut assistance and start a sustained campaign of outside pressure. But that feel-good wishfulness clashes with a more consequential reality. The military is the dominant force in the country and is likely to remain so.

Absent the army, there is a very real prospect that the largest and most important state in the Arab world — a country of 90 million people — will spin out of control and melt down. This isn’t a cri de coeur for “stability” of the false kind that ultimately brought down Mr. Mubarak, or a lament over fallen authoritarians. It is a recognition of the current limits of United States influence and a plea to accept them.

Let’s remember what drew the United States and Egypt together in the first place: not our fascination with Arab politics or our support for democratic reform, but the historical enmity between Egypt and Israel. America’s economic and military assistance to Egypt was the direct outgrowth of the 1978 Camp David agreements and the subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

The United States is still an important factor in what remains a triangular relationship, but Egypt and Israel are cooperating pretty closely these days, and the treaty is as much in Egypt’s interests as it is in Israel’s.

Still, if Mr. Kerry wants a chance to secure a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian talks, he can’t afford to see the Egyptian-Israeli bond weakened or the United States distancing itself from Israel’s main peace treaty partner. Any Israeli-Palestinian agreement will require an even greater American role than the Israeli-Egyptian process did.

The United States is exposed when it comes to Egypt. Despite Washington’s recent temporary freeze on aid, we’re still in for $1.3 billion a year to a group of generals who aren’t now and likely never will be democrats.

We must continue to press General Sisi to see through his road map for parliamentary and presidential elections — but accept that they may not meet our democratic ideals. If General Sisi decides to take off his uniform and run for president, we won’t even have the pretense of a road map toward genuine reform to hide behind.

We’re in an investment trap in Egypt, and there’s no way out right now. We need to understand that our values and our interests simply may not align there. The sooner we accept that reality, the easier it will be to come to terms with the anomalies and contradictions that define our policy.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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