Egypt’s Coup Tests Washington’s Commitment to Democracy
Morsi’s supporters, both in Egypt and other Arab countries, are convinced that U.S. officials knew about the impending coup. Many even believe that those officials actually encouraged the military to take action. Washington’s extensive ties with the Egyptian military since the early 1980s, the centerpiece of which is an annual $1.3 billion aid program to that institution, feed suspicions that the United States was something more than an innocent bystander to these latest events.
It was also clear that U.S. policy makers were not pleased with Morsi’s election, much less with the Islamist agenda that his government seemed intent on pursuing. To leaders in Washington, Morsi appeared to be the instrument of a Muslim Brotherhood regime intent on imposing Sharia law and systematically undermining secular values and institutions. Even worse, key opinion groups in the United States fretted that, sooner or later, Cairo would repudiate the Camp David Accords with Israel, despite Morsi’s repeated denials of such intent. Washington may not have prodded the Egyptian generals to remove Morsi, but they certainly shed few tears at his fall from power.
The Obama administration’s statements and actions since the coup have fostered further suspicions and cynicism. Indeed, the White House refused to call the coup a “coup.” Critics responded that if a military assault removing an elected president from power is not a coup, then the term has no meaning. The administration’s refusal to acknowledge an obvious reality came across as cowardly and deceitful.
But President Obama and his advisers had a strong (albeit cynical) reason for declining to label Morsi’s ouster as a coup. Using that term would, most legal experts agree, create an obligation under U.S. law to terminate all aid to a military that removed a duly elected leader. Washington does not want to take that step with respect to Egypt, fearing that it would further destabilize the most populous country in the Arab world.
It is important for the United States to cut-off aid to the Egyptian military, however. American taxpayers have been saddled far too long with subsidizing a notoriously corrupt, autocratic institution. But that aspect, while important, is not the main reason to terminate aid. Not only are the Egyptian people watching Washington’s response, so are populations throughout the Middle East and beyond. This crisis and the U.S. reaction to it begs the question: Does the United States truly want a democratic Middle East, or do American policy makers favor democracy only when voters in a country choose leaders that Washington likes?
Many of the values that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood represent are repugnant to most Americans—and to people elsewhere who embrace secularism and individual liberty. But he and his colleagues were chosen in free and fair elections. It would be easier for U.S. officials, of course, if Middle Eastern voters favored secular, democratic candidates. In a few areas, most notably Iraqi Kurdistan, that has been the case. Unfortunately, in most of the Middle East, voters tend to endorse more conservative, religious parties. The question remains whether Washington will respect their decisions, even when those decisions run counter to U.S. wishes—and, sometimes, U.S. interests. Policy toward Egypt in the coming weeks and months will determine if the Obama administration’s professed enthusiasm for democracy has any real substance.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of 9 books and more than 500 articles and policy studies on international affairs. He is also a member of the editorial board of Mediterranean Quarterly.
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