When a White House confronts a dynamic, unpredictable and consequential situation like Egypt, not only is it a challenge to figure out what is happening and what to do about it, but also what to say about it. Words have not just meaning, but policy, legal and political implications as well.
Was this a military coup? So far, the United States has remained silent on this question. President Obama said he was “deeply concerned” about the military’s removal of President Mohammed Morsi. He encouraged the rapid establishment of a new civilian government that will “stay true to the will of the people.” He avoided using the “c-word.”
If Washington declares it a coup, it is required by law to suspend all American aid (except humanitarian) until a democratically elected government is restored. But if it doesn’t, the American regional narrative about democracy will be severely damaged.
Given the centrality of Egypt to U.S. interests in the region, Washington may be reluctant to make a definitive declaration. While it might be tempting to adopt the Egyptian military’s narrative that this was a popular uprising, there is no credible way to describe it other than a military coup. The arrests of key Muslim Brotherhood officials in recent days simply reinforce the point.
Last year, Washington curtailed aid to Mali because the military overthrew a legitimate leader in his last months in office. The crisis in Mali – the rise of a violent Islamist separatist movement that challenged state sovereignty – was more urgent than anything Egypt was facing.
Morsi was a flawed leader to be sure, but the fact is all of Egypt’s main actors made mistakes. The opposition failed to translate the political energy in Tahrir Square in 2011 into a cohesive movement. The Muslim Brotherhood tried to systematically exclude major elements of Egyptian society from a meaningful role in political life. The military generals, while American trained, are not exactly budding George Washingtons. They are protecting public safety, but also their privileged status in Egyptian society, with virtually no civilian oversight.
As President Obama said in Cairo in 2009, “elections alone do not make true democracy.” True, but they also cannot be easily overturned absent a clear violation of international norms. The petition drive that produced the latest demonstrations against Morsi demonstrates Egypt’s democratic potential, but such energy should be channeled into political campaigns, not revolts. Every time a majority suffers buyer’s remorse, the answer can’t be a return to Tahrir Square and military overthrow.
The choice between Morsi and the military is a false one, but the United States can’t remain silent either. There are actually strong policy reasons to call this a military coup. It can improve Washington’s leverage to help advance Egyptian democracy 2.0.
So what must Egypt do now? And how can the United States help?
The interim government should lead the very political dialogue the military demanded, but gave insufficient time to commence. It has to convince the Muslim Brotherhood to that it can compete in the next political cycle as long as it rejects violent confrontation. It also has to tell the opposition to get its act together so the Egyptian people have real choices in upcoming elections for parliament and president. The selection of Mohammed ElBaradei as interim prime minister will help, although the Muslim Brotherhood refuses to recognize the new leadership.
A committee representing diverse constituencies should draft a new constitution. The process should be transparent and seek broad input from the public. It must lead a thoughtful discussion on building protections into the constitution that promote a pluralistic, tolerant civil society that is positive sum, not zero sum.
Egypt has to get the democratic sequencing right. Unlike two years ago, the priority should be producing a draft constitution that guarantees equal opportunity and minority rights, followed by parliamentary elections open to all constituencies within Egypt and then the selection of a new president.
The interim government of technocrats must make progress on economic reforms. Egypt can’t afford to wait a year to address its most urgent challenge. Enacting painful reforms, and shouldering the unpopularity that goes with it, will sharpen the debate in the upcoming election cycle and ease the burden on those elected to office under difficult circumstances.
For its part, the United States should rebalance its support to Egypt. Right now, the United States provides five dollars in military aid for every one dollar in civilian assistance. Democracy won’t flourish until the average Egyptian sees his daily life change for the better.
Military aid, roughly $1.3 billion this year, should be suspended. This sends a needed message to the Egyptian military: you’re job is to protect the country, not run it. Follow your roadmap and the aid will be waiting for you when a new civilian government is installed.
But economic assistance should be increased, now, to help Egypt’s devastated economy. The White House should work with Congress on an expanded civilian aid package (which will require a national security waiver) beyond the $250 million in support announced earlier this year.
The question of a military coup is not about making a difficult choice between the military or Morsi. It is about telling Egypt’s political actors, including the public: You need to construct more viable political options. You need to make better choices. And you need to learn to live with them.