Egypt today isÂ a zero-sum game. Weâ€™d have preferred there be a democratic alternative. Unfortunately, there is none. The choice is binary: the country will be ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood or by the military.
Perhaps it didnâ€™t have to be this way. Perhaps the military should have waited three years for the intensely unpopular Mohamed Morsi to be voted out of office. But Gen.Abdel Fatah al-Sissi seemsÂ to have calculated that he didnâ€™t have three years, that by then there would be no elections â€” as in Gaza, where the Palestinian wing of the Brotherhood,Â Hamas, elected in 2006, established aÂ one-man-one-vote-one-time dictatorship.
Whatâ€™s the United States to do? Any response demands two considerations: (a) moral, i.e., which outcome offers the better future for Egypt, and (b) strategic, i.e., which outcome offers the better future for U.S. interests and those of the free world.
As for Egyptâ€™s future, the Brotherhood offered nothing but incompetent, intolerant, increasingly dictatorial rule. In one year, Morsi managed to squanderÂ 85 years of Brotherhood prestigeÂ garnered in opposition â€” a place from which one can promise the moon â€” by persecuting journalists and activists, granting himself the unchallengedpower to rule by decree, enshrining asectarian Islamist constitutionÂ and systematically trying to seize the instruments of state power. As if that wasnâ€™t enough, after its overthrow the Brotherhood showed itself to be the party that,Â when angry, burns churches.
The military, brutal and bloody, is not a very appealing alternative. But it does matter what the Egyptian people think. The anti-Morsi demonstrations were the largest in recorded Egyptian history. Revolted by Morsiâ€™s betrayal of a revolution intended as a new opening for individual dignity and democracy, theÂ protesters explicitly demanded Morsiâ€™s overthrow. And the vast majorityÂ seem to welcome the military repressionÂ aimed at abolishing the Islamist threat. Itâ€™s their only hope, however problematic, for an eventual democratic transition.
And which alternative better helps secure U.S. strategic interests? The list of those interests is long: (1) a secure Suez Canal, (2) friendly relations with the United States, (3) continued alliance with the pro-American Gulf Arabs and Jordanians, (4) retention of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, (5) cooperation with the U.S. on terrorism, which in part involves (6) isolating Brotherhood-run Gaza.
Every one of which is jeopardized by Brotherhood rule.
What, then, should be our policy? The administration is right toÂ deplore excessive violenceÂ and urge reconciliation. But letâ€™s not fool ourselves into believing this is possible in any near future. Sissi crossed his Rubicon with the coup. It will either succeed or not. To advocate a middle way is to invite endless civil strife.
The best outcome would be a victorious military magnanimously offering, at some later date, to reintegrate the more moderate elements of whatâ€™s left of the Brotherhood.
But for now, we should not beÂ cutting off aid, civilian or military, as many in Congress are demanding. It will have no effect, buy no influence and win no friends on either side of the Egyptian divide. We should instead be urging the quick establishment of a new cabinet of technocrats, rapidly increasing its authority as the soldiers gradually return to their barracks.
Generals are very bad at governance. Give the reins to people who actually know something. And charge them with reviving the economy and preparing the foundations for a democratic transition â€” most importantly, drafting a secular constitution that protects the rights of women and minorities.
The final step on that long democratic path should be elections. First municipal, then provincial, then national. As was shown in the post-World War II democratizations, the later the better.
After all, weâ€™ve been here. Through a half-century of cold war, we repeatedly faced precisely the same dilemma: choosing the lesser evil between totalitarian (in that case, communist) and authoritarian (usually military) rule.
We generally supported the various militaries in suppressing the communists. That was routinely pilloried as a hypocritical and immoral betrayal of our alleged allegiance to liberty. But in the end, it proved the prudent, if troubled, path to liberty.
The authoritarian regimes we supported â€” in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, even Spain and Portugal (ruled by fascists until the mid-1970s!) â€” in time yielded democratic outcomes.Â Gen. Augusto Pinochet, after 16 years of iron rule, yielded to U.S. pressure and allowed a free election â€” which he lost, ushering in Chileâ€™s current era of democratic flourishing. How many times have communists or Islamists allowed that to happen?
Regarding Egypt, rather than emoting, we should be thinking: whatâ€™s best for Egypt, for us and for the possibility of some eventual democratic future.
Under the Brotherhood, such a possibility is zero. Under the generals, slim.
Slim trumps zero.