American Policy in Tatters as Egypt’s Morsi is Charged

If the Muslim Brotherhood is excluded from the political process, it could force the Obama Administration’s hands.

President Barack Obama waits with advisors before a bilateral meeting during the G8 summit at the Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 18
President Barack Obama waits with advisors before a bilateral meeting during the G8 summit at the Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 18 (White House/Pete Souza)

If the United States needed a reason to suspend economic and military assistance to the Egyptian military after Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow, the past week has given officials in Washington DC a menu to choose from.

The major question in the American capital has been what to call the Egyptian army’s intervention early this month when it detained Morsi, the elected president, and installed a transitional government headed by the country’s former chief justice. Senators like Republican John McCain and Democrat Carl Levin insist it was a coup. But under American law, the military would then have to suspend assistance to Egypt’s armed forces for interfering in the political process and overrunning an elected leader.

Concerned that a slowdown or sudden suspension of military aid would endanger national security at a critical time in Egypt’s evolution, the Obama Administration decided to ignore those in Congress who were pushing for such a cut in aid. One of the reasons is that millions of Egyptians who took to the streets to demand Morsi’s resignation after a year of increasingly authoritarian and divisive rule from his Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian army, according to this view, only reacted to the will of the people for a fresh start and a new round of elections.

Yet it only took a few hours after that decision was made to thrust Egypt back into the foreign policy spotlight. On Friday, millions heeded the call of the nation’s chief general, Abdul Fatah Sisi, to publicly and vocally demonstrate their support for the army’s actions — and by extension, oppose the millions of Morsi demonstrators who want him to be reinstated.

Many Muslim Brotherhood officials have portrayed Sisi’s call as a deliberate attempt to further divide Egyptians and justify a full-scale crackdown against Islamists of all stripes. For officials in Washington nervously watching Egypt’s story unfold, Sisi’s plea for public admiration was another indication that the army chief is in no mood to placate his opponents.

With news that President Morsi is being formally charged for allegedly conspiring with the Palestinian militant group Hamas during Egypt’s first revolution in February 2011, after weeks in incommunicado detention, legislators in Congress and officials in the State Department must be wondering how this saga will end.

President Barack Obama will have to do more than postpone the delivery of a few fighter jets to the military. His response, however, will be determined by and large by the future actions of the Egyptian army and police — and the future orders of Colonel General Sisi.

If Morsi is charged and held in prison beyond the initial fifteen day period, the United States may feel compelled to act forcefully, if for no other reason than too convince Egypt’s security forces that when America asks for a president’s release, that request should be granted.

If, on the other hand, Morsi is released after an investigation and the Muslim Brotherhood is permitted to run its own candidates or participate in the political process, the United States would be able to do what it has been doing in the last few weeks: monitor at a distance while making American values clear.

Rumors are circulating in Cairo that Egypt’s generals are preparing to use public support to go beyond the arrest of top Morsi allies; that is, to shut down the Muslim Brotherhood entirely. That would deny the majority of Egypt’s Islamist high office and effectively prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from playing a meaningful role in the political process going forward. With inclusion and unity government being the two principles that the United States have advocated throughout Egypt’s most recent turmoil, that might force the hands of an administration that desperately wants to continue business as usual.