America Can't Win

By David Andrew Weinberg

A decade or two ago, American experts focused on the Middle East used to love talking about the “Turkish model” for democracy in the Arab world. The idea was that since Turkey was a Muslim-majority country with a secular, democratic, and pro-American government, this proved that Arab states considering a transition to democracy could have similar aspirations. In American eyes, Turkey proved that Egypt could go the same way.

But with political turmoil in Egypt unfolding in the aftermath of a military-led coup, the Turkish model on which many of us relied is intellectually bankrupt. There are two reasons why this is the case: events in Egypt today seem to fit other elements of the Turkish experience, and Turkey’s own direction in recent years undermines the various ideals that the model was supposed to embody.

If Egyptian politics the past two weeks resemble any strand of Turkey’s political development, it is the country’s legacy of recurring military coups. Afterwards, the US calls for a swift return to civilian rule, but military intervention is accepted as a necessary evil, required to put a stop to widening political polarization and chaos in the streets.

The other reason the Turkish model no longer holds much appeal in Washington for dealing with Egypt is that Turkish politics in the last decade contradict the ideal vision that many of us imposed upon it in our minds. Turkey today is arguably less pro-American and less democratic than it was a decade ago, and the country’s free media has been domesticated by the ruling party.

Egypt’s last year under Mohamed Mursi seemed to be following an exaggerated version of this trajectory. Yes, Morsi was elected under legal, democratic circumstances. Nonetheless, every major step he took during his presidency exacerbated the opposition’s valid fears that he intended to rule as an authoritarian strongman instead. His declaration last November claiming supremacy over the judiciary was only the worst example of this trend.

America’s most relevant model in the region offers a less than inspiring vision for Egypt’s future. When it comes to dealing with Egypt, the United States therefore has few good options from which to choose. Just look at the current debate in Washington over whether or not last week’s events qualify as a military coup.

American law forbids providing most kinds of foreign assistance to a country that has experienced a military coup until a new government is elected. There is no waiver built into the law that allows the president to disregard this rule. Thus, prominent senators John McCain, Carl Levin, and Patrick Leahy (a Republican and two Democrats) argue that the United States must now terminate its USD 1.55 billion in annual foreign assistance to Egypt.

Meanwhile, other officials from both parties—including both President Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner—have suggested that the US can avoid designating what happened in Egypt as a military coup. The president’s spokesperson made clear on Monday that the administration is going to withhold judgment on this question for some time, explaining that “we do not believe it is in our interest to make a decision or determination now to change our assistance program right away.”

Whichever side wins this debate, America loses. If Mursi’s ouster is termed a coup, America stands up for democracy and the rule of law while ignoring his creeping authoritarianism. It also loses its best leverage over the Egyptian military. If, however, the label of “coup” is avoided entirely, America retains its leverage while turning a blind eye to the removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected ruler.

To be fair, much of this debate is a battle over semantics. No aid was expected to be disbursed to Egypt in the next few months anyway, so the president can conceivably withhold judgment for some time. However, it is difficult to envision him actually disbursing more aid, since that could put him in violation of US law.

Thus, either way this debate is resolved, it seems American aid to Egypt is now in limbo until such time as Egypt gets another democratically elected government.

Ever since Mursi was elected president, the United States has been trying to mediate between the various political factions in Egypt. For months before his ouster, Washington had sought to broker a compromise that would keep Mursi in his elected office while sharing power with various elements of the opposition. The United States continues to encourage all sides in Egypt to participate politically and to refrain from violence.

And yet the Muslim Brotherhood’s website recently posted an article claiming that acting President Adly Mansour is secretly Jewish, and that the coup installing him was part of an American-backed conspiracy to bring down Mursi’s government. This is only the latest instance of Brotherhood sympathizers seeing American conspiracies arrayed against them, even though Mursi’s inner circle knows the US was working behind the scenes to find a compromise that would prevent this coup.

The Tamarod (“Rebellion”) petition that claimed twenty-two million signatures and contributed to the protests starting June 30 that brought down Mursi listed as one of its seven grievances that he “has followed the Americans instead of your wishes.” By the end, demonstrators were also bashing US Ambassador Anne Patterson as a symbol of American acquiescence to Mursi’s accumulation of power.

In short, both sides in Egypt today seem to think we are conspiring against them. Whether this is a result of American policy over the years or simply a product of some Egyptians’ tendency to see a hidden hand behind each new political development, the end result is that nobody in the country seems to like us very much.

At the end of the day, perhaps the most important question is not whether Egypt has experienced a military coup—it clearly has, even if that coup had some domestic legitimacy behind it. Instead, perhaps we should be asking ourselves how to move forward when so many people in Egypt question America’s intentions.