Side with democracy in Egypt

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In foreign policy, one useful test in judging the wisdom of a pending decision is to look at whose side it would put you on, what your allies would be like and whether you really want to be where the decision would take you.

That is a good way of considering whether the United States should continue to back Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian military in the coup d'etat they carried out July 3 against elected President Muhammad Morsi. The military clearly seeks to return to ruling Egypt as it did from 1952 until Mr. Morsi's election last year, and it is conducting a bloody crackdown against Mr. Morsi's supporters to do so. The death toll has probably reached a thousand by now.

So, who likes the idea of the military running the show in Egypt again?

Those who do include the American military, American companies that sell weapons to the Egyptian military, other absolutist rulers in the Middle East, including those of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the Israelis. And, of course, the Egyptian military leaders, who have been ready to shoot down a lot of Egyptians to retain their privileged place. Then there's President Barack Obama, who should be contemplating giving back his Nobel Peace Prize at this point.

The somewhat respectable argument for preferring to see the Egyptian military in charge is the classical diplomatic one that favors stability over the less predictable democratic rule that an elected government may produce. But this reflects a difficult hypothesis: that the Egyptian military will win out, that its bloodthirsty strategy will succeed in beating the Egyptian populace into acquiescence and allow generals in sunglasses to rule. That may or may not be the case.

I basically think not. At least two things fuel opponents of the military.

The first is fiery Islamic faith. Some see the generals to some degree as heretics, standing in the way of the Islamic state they thought they had voted for by choosing Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood in last year's elections.

The second is the idea of democracy, even though there is no tradition of it in Egypt. There is a kind of "how are you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree" quality to democracy. You tell people they get to choose their leaders at the ballot box. They do. Then you tell them you're going to roll the system back to the way it was before, in this case during President Hosni Mubarak's time. They won't buy it. They'll fight it.

There is another factor. The Egyptian Army is largely made up of poor boys from the same stratum of society as the people they are being asked to shoot down. How long will they be willing to do that? The world has seen before the spectacle of armies refusing to shoot crowds and inviting demonstrators to climb up on their tanks and proceed with a revolution.

If Mr. Obama decides to stick with the generals, he will have made the wrong choice. In betting against democracy and Islamic fervor, he will have put his and our money on the wrong horse. And who will he have saddled us with?

I have watched the Middle East, intermittently but fairly closely, since 1963. All of that time I have been hearing about how it has been hobbled politically and economically by its lack of representative government. Even so, I understood the deals we made -- with Saudi kings and princes, Persian Gulf sheikhs, with Iran's Shah Reza Pahlavi and even with Saddam Hussein -- to keep Middle Eastern countries out of the clutches of the Soviet Union. But all of that should have changed after 1990 with the end of the Cold War.

The argument then became that we needed Middle Eastern oil, though it always seemed obvious to me that the oil producers had to sell the stuff no matter what.

Then the argument shifted to our need for stability in the Middle East to protect Israel. That is the argument that lobbyists for the Israelis now make loudly in Washington, urging continued U.S. support of the Egyptian generals even as they brutally snuff out Egyptian democracy.

What that argument leaves out is that the Israelis had stability in the countries around them -- in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria -- for decades and, instead of making peace with the Palestinians during that time, they continued to expand their settlements in the West Bank, which was supposed to become the bulk of an independent Palestine. If the price of maintaining a problematical stability in one of those states, Egypt, is at the cost of seething disorder and thousands of Egyptian dead, presided over by generals, Mr. Obama needs to think hard if that is a price the United States is prepared to pay.

And what about America's faith in democracy? For the first time in its history, Egypt had elections. The Muslim Brotherhood's Muhammad Morsi won. The elections were free and fair.

Even though they had made their choice, some Egyptians then began to question what the new president and his government were doing. (Americans never get fed up with their presidents, do they?) Thus, when the good old military made its move on July 3 and some U.S. friends in the region -- Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikhs -- said they liked the military better than they liked the Islamists, the United States weaseled out of calling what the generals had done a coup and thus maintained $1.3 billion in U.S. aid to the Egyptian military. By the way, the significance of that aid is symbolic and important, even if the generals' other international fans would make up for it if the United States cuts off the cash.

The problem for the United States is whose side it's on, and, that, no matter how we cozy up to them, the generals may not even triumph in the end against Egypt's Islamists and believers in democracy. It's not too late to make the right decision.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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