Supporting the wrong side in Egypt
With all that is suddenly happening in Syria, the Egyptian government is certainly happy to see the world distracted. While the US will probably do something in Syria this week, it continues to do almost nothing in Egypt.
In her recent piece, Anne Applebaum argues that the US shouldn’t take sides in Egyptian politics; that we should simply be on the side of democracy no matter who is in power. Hers is a noble and, I think, largely correct sentiment, but she doesn’t offer much in the way of advice on HOW the US is supposed to stay neutral.
President Obama has argued the same thing – we should stay out of Egyptian politics and “is not aligned with” “any particular group”. Also a nice sentiment. The problem is, we are taking sides through our inaction while the Egyptian military government slaughters peaceful protesters, arrests its opponents and moves to eliminate the group that Egyptians decided, quite decisively, they wanted as their leaders in late 2011 – the Muslim Brotherhood.
In one of the first posts I made on this blog a couple years ago I argued for military intervention in Libya in part because we also had to look at non-intervention as a choice equally as meaningful in terms of its consequences. While we’re not going to start firing off cruise missiles into Egypt, the least we can do, as commentators like Fred Kaplan have suggested, is suspend the military aid that is being provided to those doing the killing. How much are you willing to send from your paycheck to buy weapons for an Egyptian military that shoots unarmed men protesting for democracy? If you’re an American, you are sending them about ten dollars a year – wouldn’t you rather your money go elsewhere?
The arguments in favor of continuing aid tend to be rather cynical. One argument is that we are paying Egypt for continued peace with Israel. Maybe that was true in 1979, but it is hardly true now. It’s hard to picture Egyptian generals deciding that, since they can’t receive American aid, it must be time to attack Israel. Nonsense.
By the same token, it’s hard to imagine Egypt’s military retaliating in other substantial ways – restricting access to the Suez Canal or denying American planes overflight privileges. The US can make life substantially more difficult for the Egyptian government than simply denying them aid – and it’s unlikely that its new leaders would like to start a tit for tat retaliation with the American government.
Turning our back on the Muslim Brotherhood and failing speak out on their behalf is not only an ideological and moral shortcoming in US foreign policy, it’s also against our long term interests. It seems that Obama administration is willing to accept the idea of turning back the clock in Egypt to the days of poorly legitimized military rule. It wasn’t a stable system the first time, and it won’t be this time. In the longer term, democracy will come to Egypt and those leaders will have an axe to grind – not just with the ancien régime but also with us.
Plus, the Muslim Brotherhood are, for lack of a better term, the “good Islamists.” Al Qaeda hates the Muslim Brotherhood because they saw them as a threat to their ideology of Sharia-law-through-violence. The Saudis hate them because they preach a marriage of conservative Islam and actual democracy. No, they weren’t perfect leaders – and frankly were I an Egyptian I’m sure I’d disagree with them on just about everything – but they were legitimate rulers and their very presence in government undercut those most out to do Americans harm.
The US needs to keep an eye on the longer term and stand with those elected by Egypt’s people. Supporting democracy in Egypt means taking sides – and we have taken the wrong one.