Cutting off aid to Egypt would be a mistake

Egypt by

Thousands of protesters flocked to Cairo's Tahrir Square, Egypt, Nov 22, 2011. People were dead and injured because of tear gas, rubber bullets of riot police.

Article Highlights

  • Democracy rests on much more than simply conducting elections

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  • @AmbJohnBolton Congress should make a quick, technical statutory fix that allows US aid to continue despite the coup

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  • @AmbJohnBolton Egypt's military deserves the sign of U.S. support that continued assistance would send

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Decisive action by Egypt's military has brought down President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government, but the Brotherhood is not going quietly. It has condemned the coup as "illegitimate," arguing that its candidates won free and fair elections. It refuses to cooperate with the interim government and on Monday provoked the military to violence. More than 50 demonstrators were killed—no doubt the Brotherhood, in its twisted thinking, considers them martyrs to the cause.

The anti-Morsi protesters who last week effectively triggered the army's move to depose him were briefly elated at his fall. But now they are hopelessly divided about how to proceed. Ironically, this "opposition" initially included the leading Salafist political party, which is even more radically Islamist than the Brotherhood. The Salafists' support for the coup has wavered, but the group clearly has an eye on outmaneuvering the Brotherhood in the new political environment.

The military has so far remained cohesive, underlining Mr. Morsi's error in believing that he had brought it under control following his year-long effort as president to pack the armed forces with generals loyal to the Brotherhood. The military acted to overthrow Mr. Morsi only reluctantly and would likely prefer returning to its barracks (and its own lucrative business enterprises) and its decades-long role directing Egypt's overall state security.

After the past week's violence, however, it is probably impossible for the military to withdraw from a continuing, prominent role, especially since its civilian allies are so feckless. Nonetheless, new interim President Adly Mansour has decreed a rapid return to electoral politics: a constitutional referendum in four months, parliamentary elections two months later and presidential elections thereafter. It is hard to imagine a more rapid transition, if it could be implemented successfully.

Unfortunately, continuing instability and violence in Egypt appear likely, a far cry from the flourishing of democracy that "Arab Spring" advocates confidently predicted two-plus years ago. Their confidence now rings especially hollow given the Muslim Brotherhood's significant election victories last year in both presidential and parliamentary elections. That those victories now lie in ruins is only due to Mr. Morsi's overreaching and incompetence.

In the midst of Egypt's political disarray and economic collapse, what should America's policy be? Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a policy. Even President Obama's media supporters now complain that he remains irresolute while Egyptians riot, the Camp David accord with Israel teeters, and world oil prices rise for fear that the Suez Canal might close.

Refraining from unnecessary public statements may be tactically wise now. But what are America's leaders doing behind the scenes as the future of the most populous and influential Arab nation hangs in the balance?

Many Americans, concerned that a "democratically elected" government has been ousted, argue that we should, as current law requires, terminate assistance to Egypt until another election takes place. This view is wrong on several counts.

First, while the Muslim Brotherhood prevailed in the 2012 elections, it worked assiduously thereafter to cement itself in power by manipulating the instruments of governance, such as packing the military, challenging the Mubarak-era appointees in the judiciary and writing a constitution that suited its ultimate objective of an Islamist state.

Second, democracy rests on much more than simply conducting elections. Liberty is the more profound objective, encompassing attributes like freedom of conscience and speech and constitutional restraints on government power. These are as important to a free society as the bare mechanics of elections. Thus understood, the Brotherhood's single-minded focus under President Morsi—to establish a harsh theocracy that would put an end to freedom of conscience and dissent—was manifestly unacceptable.

Accordingly, the military had little choice but to move, both to prevent the Brotherhood from continuing its own creeping coup and to avoid potentially deadly civil conflict. That the Brotherhood has launched violent protests since July 3 shows its determination to reclaim power and likely presages even broader violence. Had the army hesitated beyond last week, instability, carnage and the threat to any prospect of a free, open society would likely have been much worse.

It follows that cutting off U.S. assistance to Egypt now would be seriously mistaken, as would pressuring other donors to withhold financial assistance to rescue Egypt's economy from the deepening morass that Mr. Morsi let it become. Such cutbacks also would send exactly the wrong political message to the factions within Egypt, the Middle East more broadly, and America's friends and allies world-wide. Congress should make a quick, technical statutory fix that allows U.S. aid to continue despite the coup.

Egypt's military deserves the sign of U.S. support that continued assistance would send, especially to counter the deleterious consequences in 2011 when President Hosni Mubarak came under public pressure and President Obama wavered in support, then ultimately tossed Mr. Mubarak aside. Everyone, whatever their politics, agrees that Egypt's economy needs massive assistance.

Plainly this is the time for American leadership—not to sort out Egypt's manifold internal political difficulties, but to assert a clear-eyed view of America's enduring interests in the Middle East. Let's hope the Obama administration wakes up in time.

Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad" (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

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