Secretary of State John F. Kerry's stop in Egypt Sunday underscored that developments there continue to put America between a rock and a hard place.
The Arab Spring of 2010 toppled President Hosni Mubarak and seemed to signal a new day for democracy in that nation of 81 million, an important ally of the United States in the Middle East. The election of Mohamed Morsi as president in 2012 presented difficulties for relations.
The elections were democratic, a plus, but Mr. Morsi was the candidate of the long-suppressed, Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood. Some Egyptians, including the long-ruling military, whom he began seeking to bring under civilian authority, soon grew disaffected with what some considered an excessively Islamic trend in the policies of the new president.
On that basis, the Egyptian military overthrew Mr. Morsi in a coup d'etat in July, installing a government that was a thinly disguised surrogate for Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and other Egyptian officers. Since then Washington has reduced, but not cut off, military and other aid to Egypt, continuing to pretend that what occurred was not a coup, which by U.S. law would have required an end to U.S. aid.
The problem for the administration posed by America's principles on democratic governance in Egypt is that other U.S. allies in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, supported Mr. Mubarak and found the Egyptians' election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mr. Morsi disquieting. The big stop on Mr. Kerry's trip is Saudi Arabia, where he hoped Monday to calm its rulers' anger at the United States on several matters -- accepting the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak, initially supporting the election of Mr. Morsi, not snuggling up to Gen. Sisi, not attacking Syria's Bashar Assad regime and moving toward constructive talks with Iran, the Saudis' rival.
Mr. Kerry went to Egypt first to talk with the generals. He reportedly urged them to stick to what they call their road map back to democracy, to include a new constitution and parliamentary and presidential elections next spring, but the real point was the legitimacy he gave their rule by visiting there, in the eyes of the Egyptians, the Saudis and the Israelis.
Eventually Mr. Obama will have to figure out what he really thinks about democracy in the Middle East. In the meantime, the United States continues to try to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.