Egypt's Bloodbath Is America's Failure

Opponent of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi chant slogans during a rally outside the Presidential palace, in Cairo on July 7, 2013 Photograph by Hassan Ammar/AP Images

It may take days or even weeks to count the full cost of the Egyptian army’s crackdown against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The government says its raids on pro-Brotherhood encampments left 95 dead and some 874 wounded; according to the Washington Post, representatives of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party put the number at more than 2,000—which would qualify as one of the worst one-day massacres in the recent history of the Middle East. It’s possible that relative order may return to Cairo’s streets, but there’s just as much a chance that Egypt will descend further into chaos. Either way, at least one thing is now eminently, painfully clear: the Obama administration’s policy toward the largest and most important nation in the Arab world is a failure.

When demonstrations against former strongman Hosni Mubarak first emerged in January 2011, the administration refrained from openly embracing them. Only after Mubarak’s security forces attempted to use force against the protestors did the U.S. switch course, withdrawing its support for Mubarak and endorsing a takeover by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. When liberals and Islamists alike accused the SCAF of a power grab, the administration pressured the army to move toward elections, which were won by the Muslim Brotherhood. Dissatisfaction with President Mohammed Morsi’s government brought protestors out onto the streets again, demanding Morsi’s ouster—a prospect the U.S. rejected, at first. As late as June 18, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson said, “Throughout Egypt’s post-revolution series of elections, the United States took the position that we would work with whoever won elections that met international standards, and this is what we have done.” Less than two weeks later, the army deposed Morsi, installed a caretaker government, and announced a six-month “timetable” for revising Egypt’s constitution and holding new elections.

How did the U.S. respond? After a three-week policy review, the White House determined the forcible ouster and imprisonment of a democratically elected president didn’t qualify as a “coup” and therefore didn’t require the U.S. to cut off aid to Egypt’s military. The White House said it was “cautiously encouraged” by the army’s promises to hold elections. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the country’s military leaders for “restoring democracy.” Even after today’s crackdown, deputy White House spokesman Josh Earnest gave no indication the U.S. is considering even a temporary suspension of aid to the interim government.

As Jonathan Tepperman notes, the administration’s pattern of vacillation, mixed messages, and hypocrisy has succeeded in one respect: It has left the U.S. equally loathed by all sides in Egypt—with the possible exception of a military establishment that reserves the power to jail, repress, and kill its opponents with impunity. By refusing to use the leverage it has in Egypt and immediately cut off aid until civilian control is restored, the administration is effectively propping up a regime that openly disdains basic democratic principles and human rights.

In 2009, Barack Obama told a rapt and admiring audience in Cairo that “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.” The people of Egypt are still waiting for him to do so.

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