America's Egypt Problem

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The U.S. has an Egypt problem.


Ever since the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the Obama administration has been groping for a strategy to cope with Egypt. A pliable dictator gone, the administration has been cultivating the Muslim Brotherhood, most recently agreeing to sell Egypt F-16s and Abrams tanks despite mounting evidence (as if any were needed) of the Brotherhood's illiberalism.

Eric Trager writes that the Obama administration ultimately cannot trust the Brotherhood:

It would be naive, therefore, to believe that Morsi won't turn on Washington when he feels the time is right. After all, the Brotherhood is already signaling that it intends to reassess the peace treaty with Israel, which comprises a core American interest: The Brotherhood's political party has recently drafted legislation to unilaterally amend the treaty, and a top Brotherhood foreign policy official recently told a closed salon that Morsi "is cancelling normalization with the Zionist entity gradually." Yet the Brotherhood is unlikely to pursue its anti-Western ambitions until after it finishes consolidating its power at home. As deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shater explained during the April 2011 unveiling of the "Renaissance Project," the Brotherhood must first build an "Islamic government" before establishing "the global Islamic state."

For this reason, the Obama administration should work to prevent the Brotherhood from consolidating its control of Egypt through a pro-democratic policy. Specifically, Washington should withhold its support for the $4.8 billion loan that Egypt is seeking until the Brotherhood takes demonstrable steps towards more inclusive rule, which should include ending the prosecution of the Brotherhood's political opponents and media critics.

The real question is whether U.S. policy toward Egypt should be centered on efforts to micromanage their domestic politics to engineer a government that will reaffirm the peace treaty with Israel. That seems deeply misguided to me. First, it's probably not going to work. If Trager is to be believed, a more pluralistic Egypt is likely to be more sympathetic to Israel. But where's the evidence for that? Even if the U.S. were able to push the Brotherhood, grudgingly, toward a truly democratic system, there's no guarantee that Egypt writ-large will be any more amenable toward Israel.

The other alternative, backing a military coup, is equally absurd. It's likely to ignite another revolt, deepen anti-Americanism and generate more recruits for al-Qaeda. There are times when the U.S. must work with dictators, but actively consigning millions of people to live under a dictatorship to further a peripheral U.S. interest is simply counter-productive.

I don't think Trager's wrong to suggest that Egypt is veering off on a potentially dangerous trajectory and that the U.S. could take some steps to at least not make things worse. A good place to start would be to not sell Egypt weapons that could be used against Israel or provide economic relief as the Brotherhood runs the Egyptian economy off the rails. A policy of disengagement may not make Egypt embrace Israel, but it will at least not strengthen the Brotherhood. It will also signal to the Egyptian people that their destiny is in their own hands.

The Egyptian army is probably smart enough to understand that they will lose a war with Israel and have shown no interest to date in having another go at it. The ultimate guarantor of Egypt-Israeli peace is not the government in Cairo but the large imbalance in military power between the two countries, something the U.S. has contributed to in no small measure.

(AP Photo)

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