What Obama Misunderstands About Egypt
This morning, President Barack Obama condemned the Egyptian military's slaughter of Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers, and canceled joint military exercises scheduled for next month. He said that the violence should stop and that "a process of national reconciliation should begin."
What the White House fails to understand is that the Egyptian military has very different ideas about what "reconciliation" should look like. Its goal is to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, its traditional adversary, by killing as many Brothers as possible and by jailing or otherwise hounding the others. As for the surprise registered in the White House that Egypt's military rulers didn't listen to repeated American pleas for reconciliation and compromise: How hard is it to believe that Middle Eastern potentates promised one thing to the U.S., and then did something else entirely?
The generals in Cairo have made cold calculations. One of them is that brutality pays dividends. Yes, there may be short-term consequences to the brutal crackdown: There's still a decent chance that the U.S. will suspend aid to the Egyptian military. But the generals understood that a suspension of aid might be possible in the aftermath of the sort of crackdown we're seeing now. Which means that they have come to think that wiping out the Brotherhood is worth the risk. (They also know that there are plenty of wealthy sheiks in the Persian Gulf who viscerally oppose the Brotherhood and who would be happy to supplement Egypt's defense budget.)
It's important to note that the Egyptian military isn't yet all in -- for an example of an all-in, maximum-violence Middle East eradication campaign, please see Syria. But I don't much doubt that the bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood will continue, despite the heartfelt pleas from the White House and the near daily phone calls from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. And one reason is Syria: Egyptian generals can't help but notice that the world has stood idly by as Bashar al-Assad has presided over the deaths of some 100,000 Syrian citizens. In the Middle East, you can, in fact, get away with murder.
The Egyptian military will ultimately fail in its campaign to uproot the Brotherhood, because the group is quite popular in many sectors of Egyptian society and its members are expert at underground living. And the Egyptian military has given the Brotherhood something it seeks: mass martyrdom, which is the most potent motivational tool a theocratic movement has in its arsenal. Egypt is falling into ruin because the Brotherhood is anti-democratic, revanchist, anti-Christian and power-mad, and because the Egyptian military couldn't conceive of a way to marginalize it without resorting to mass violence.
This leaves the U.S. in the difficult position of having no one to support. There is, at this point, no good reason to continue funding the Egyptian armed forces. The aid obviously hasn't provided the White House with sufficient leverage, and it makes the U.S. complicit in what just happened and what will undoubtedly continue to happen. One argument for continued aid is that it encourages the military to maintain Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. But the military will do so whether or not the U.S. provides money and weapons, because it has decided that Islamist extremism, and not Israel, is Egypt's main enemy. And it will be too busy persecuting Egyptians.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)