US role in Egypt: keep channels open with those in power

OWL’S HEAD, Maine — Nothing like a good military take-over in one of the key Arab countries to bring out the best in the chattering classes. Analysts, and politicians, and columnists and their editorial boards, were on all sides of the issue: it was a coup, it wasn't a coup; the US interfered, the US didn't interfere enough.

David Rothkopf, the CEO and editor-in-large of Foreign Policy magazine, wrote, "rather than look at the mechanics of democracy, we should look at the spirit and trends involved." By this standard, he concluded, the overthrow of Morsi shows Egypt is "democratizing."

Marc Lynch, an editor of Foreign Policy's Middle East channel, had a different take: "Nobody should celebrate a military coup against Egypt's freely elected president, no matter how badly he failed." He added that while "few in Washington are sorry to see Morsi go…few believe that this process, a mass uprising culminating in a military coup, will restore stability or lead to a democratic outcome."

The Obama administration, meanwhile, was still struggling with how not to call a coup a coup. While the White House expressed President Obama's "deep concern about the decision made by the Egyptian military to remove President Morsi from power, tens of millions of Egyptians have legitimate grievances with President Morsi's undemocratic" ways, and they "do not believe that this was a coup." And the White House was agreeing with those tens of millions.

The problem with calling this coup a coup is that Congress, in all its self-righteous glory, has ruled that no aid can be provided a nation following a military overthrow of a democratically elected leader.

The military-appointed head of the interim Egyptian government announced elections for early next year, for which the White House was "cautiously encouraged." But who knows if they'll actually be held then and what further waning of US influence might occur in the meantime were the US to pull its aid from an Egyptian economy in free fall.

The good news is that the Saudis and the Emirates have rushed in with $8 billion in short-term aid, buttressing the Egyptian government and, naturally, their own influence as well.

Michele Dunne, vice president of the Atlantic Council, blames Washington for the outcome, be it a coup or no: "What is apparent to all is the US has made a hash of its Egyptian policy."

The Washington Post's right-wing columnist Jennifer Rubin agreed: the Obama administration "has neither the personnel nor the policy heft to help navigate through a dangerous period in the Middle East. No wonder American influence is at a low ebb in the region." Her moderate Post colleague, David Ignatius, however, saw little blame for the US: "For once, the Middle East conspiracy theorists who always see America as the controlling force in events seem to have been wrong. President Obama has been a back-seat passenger."

Arguably, one could say that Egyptians demonstrating with pictures of the American ambassador in Cairo, a big X defacing her photograph, is proof of US incompetence. Not really.

Sure, the US supported Mubarak for 30 years, which through two highly explosive Palestinian intifadas at least helped keep the Egyptian-Israeli peace. And sure, we tried to work with Morsi, who for all his ideological and practical faults, was key in getting a truce between Israel and Hamas last November.

Would the Middle East had been more stable if we had refused to deal with Mubarak? Would Egypt be on a faster track to democracy if we had snubbed Morsi?

A Washington Post editorial condemned the coup: "There is no ambiguity about what happened in Egypt: a military coup against a democratically elected government and the wrong response to the country's problems." And then, having attacked the Egyptian military, it turned its guns on the Obama administration for failing "to forthrightly oppose the military intervention," concluding that "there should be no question that…US aid to Egypt — including the $1.3 billion annual grant to the military — must be suspended."

Not to do so, the newspaper added in a subsequent editorial, would "merely encourage the generals to continue their reckless and counterproductive behavior."

Not so fast, suggested the New Yokr Times. Noting in its own editorial that the US "has little leverage over either Morsi or the opposition," it opined that the Obama administration had "reacted with appropriate caution."

An Egyptian analyst had a different perspective: "We should not get carried away and start drawing wrong lessons from the coup. The ouster of democracy from Egypt is indeed a very sad development. However, it is not the beginning or the end of any trend right now." His right-on conclusion: "It takes decades, even centuries for countries to develop a functioning democracy."

Aaron David Miller, who spent several decades as one of Washington's chief mediators between Israel and the Palestinians, had an equally cautious view: "Before July 3, Egypt was headed for a dead end. Now Egypt has another shot to get things right."

But, he asks, "Will this new reality prove better than the old one? Will it bring more prosperity, more security, and a semblance of democratic life?" And he answered his question with the only legitimate answer: "Right now, there's no way to know."

In fact, we may not know for many years. Egypt has deep problems, way beyond the incompetence of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and the stumble it produced on an already rocky road towards a more representative government.

Look at some statistics: the population, which is now over 80 million, has quadrupled from around 20 million since the late 1950s — or in the lifetime of those trying to run the overcrowded country. Urbanization has turned Cairo into an unmanageable megacity of 20 million. Climate change, on top of overpopulation, has begun to affect the annual Nile flooding, the lifeblood of the country, with salt water creeping into the Nile Delta.

Close to half the population lives at or below the poverty line, and unemployment, or severe underemployment, especially among those under 30 — and 60 percent of the population is under 30 -- is endemic. The government's lost more than half of its foreign reserves since Mubarak was overthrown and the pace is accelerating. Over the coming months, it's going to need a continued influx of cash from its Gulf neighbors. What it doesn't need is for the US to cut off financial support.

Democracy does not come easy. There are worse things than a military coup; and the deaths of over 50 Morsi supporters on Monday at the hands of the military may bring them on. Even if it doesn't degenerate into a total civil war, Iraqi-style violence and al-Qaeda-supported terrorism could turn Egypt into an on-going basket case, with no tourism, no investment, and indefinite military rule.

To expect that Egypt — its 5,000 years of history including no exposure to democracy, and its modern incarnation an untidy mix of moderate Muslims, fundamentalists of the Brotherhood variety, wild-eyed extremists, westernized secularists, and Coptic Christians — to, overnight, find a way to subsume their differences for the common good is clearly unrealistic.

So what, if anything, should be the role of the US going ahead? Maintain open channels with those in power; keep below the radar while offering sought-for advice; encourage our Gulf friends to continue their financial support.

Beyond that? As things deteriorate further, two realistic appraisals from two Middle East experts are worth keeping in mind. Foreign Policy's Steve Walt: "Washington's ability to influence events will be extremely limited." And Fareed Zakaria: "The reality is that leadership from Washington is largely irrelevant. What matters is leadership in Cairo."

Egypt needs good leadership, desperately. But then, looking around, they're not the only country that could do with a leadership upgrade.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director, who lives at Owl’s Head, Maine.