This week, the Egyptian government evicted Muslim Brotherhood members from encampments they set up in Cairo and elsewhere when the popular, military-backed uprising removed their leader, Mohamed Morsi, from power in late June. The government had ordered them multiple times to leave the “sit-ins,” camps where they had children to put in the military’s line of fire and ammunition and weapons to shoot back. The Brothers refused to budge or engage in political negotiations, insisting on nothing less than Morsi’s full restoration to the presidency. They wanted martyrs and, sadly, they got them — in the hundreds, though not without taking at least 43 Egyptian policemen with them.
But the military’s horrific violence yesterday does not alter the U.S.’s calculus. The Muslim Brotherhood and the military government are now at war, and the latter remains the best hope for securing American interests and, ultimately, a free Egypt. We should therefore continue our financial and matériel support for the Egyptian military and maintain as close a relationship as possible to push the government toward our objectives.
Secretary Kerry’s proclamation two weeks ago that the army’s seizure of power was “restoring democracy” may sound silly on its face, but it contained an important truth: The security-seeking military is a better bet for Egypt’s long-term prospects of pluralism than are anti-democratic Islamists.
This much was clear when, following their eviction, armed Islamist mobs eschewed any kind of peaceful resistance and chose to attack Coptic churches across Egypt, burning more than a dozen to the ground and assaulting the worshipers — even before they turned to burning down government buildings as they did Wednesday. President Obama rightly said that such behavior is unacceptable but did not extend the logic — that any group that responds in such a deliberately destructive way against an innocent, defenseless minority has no role in Egypt’s future or a free society. The perilous state of the Middle East’s largest religious minority is a good bellwether for whether progress is being made in Egyptian society, and the U.S. and the European Union should make the Copts’ treatment a priority.
After the Brotherhood, as the only organized political force in Egyptian society outside Mubarak’s pharaonic state, won Egypt’s first free parliamentary elections, support for the group has steadily eroded, to the point where no more than one-third of Egyptians at the time of the popular coup this summer supported Morsi’s government.
Now is not the time, therefore, to cut off support for their main adversary, the military and the current government — especially since doing so would reinforce the powerful, harmful impression of sympathy for the Brotherhood.
The United States has three key security interests in Egypt: free passage through the Suez Canal; the suppression of Islamist insurgents throughout the country, especially the Sinai; and, most important, maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel. The military has always been an acceptable guarantor of those objectives, and any government led by the Muslim Brotherhood would not be, out of incompetence and hostility.
The United States’ leverage is limited — much of the resources necessary to keep Egypt afloat have and will come from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia — but we can use our relationship with the military to urge them to allow the development of civil society and the writing of a constitution that respects minority rights and free expression. The fever of the Arab Spring gave Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood their chance to attempt such a project, and they had no interest in it.
Standing by the military is the best of our bad options in Egypt. Any other decision would empower the fiercest enemies of a free society and put our interests at risk.