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The Egyptian military steps in, probably for the better

The Muslim Brotherhood is claiming that its candidate won the country’s presidential runoff election. The claim is entirely plausible.

However, the victory of its candidate may be of far less consequence than the Brotherhood had hoped. For, according to the Washington Post, Egypt’s military leaders have just issued a constitutional decree that gives the armed forces sweeping powers and reduces (or “degrades,” to use the Post’s term) the presidency to a subservient role. Says the Post:

Under the order, the president will have no control over the military’s budget or leadership and will not be authorized to declare war without the consent of the ruling generals. The document said the military would soon name a group of Egyptians to draft a new constitution, which will be subject to a public referendum within three months. Once a new charter is in place, a parliamentary election will be held to replace the Islamist-dominated lower house that was dissolved Thursday after the country’s high court ruled that one-third of the chamber’s members had been elected unlawfully.

The military’s decree will no doubt produce much hand-wringing here in Washington. Indeed, on Saturday the Post’s editorial board urged the Obama administration to make clear to the Egyptian military that if the democratic process is not respected and restored, its relations with the U.S. will be “ruptured.”

I respect the Post’s editorial board, particularly on issues relating to foreign policy and democracy promotion. But this recommendation seems foolhardy and dangerous. The Egyptian military is probably the only entity in Egypt with any heft that has the least bit of affinity for the U.S. And the entity that the Egyptian military has acted against – the Muslim Brotherhood – is a radically anti-American outfit.

If anything, moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood has less underlying respect for democracy than the military. Initially, it wanted nothing to do with democratic elections. For the Brotherhood, democracy is a means to an end. And that end is neither democratic nor palatable to the U.S. or Egypt. Meanwhile, the military appears to be struggling with how to balance the aspirations of the Arab Spring and the imperative of not seeing the country fly out of control and into radical hands.

The fact that the Brotherhood can win an election in Egypt’s current, fractured political landscape is insufficient reason for the U.S. to demand that the Egyptian military sit by and watch it take power. Ayatollah Khomeini and his crew probably would have won a fair election in early days of post-revolutionary Iran. His ascent to power would have been no more acceptable had it occurred democratically.

This doesn’t mean the U.S. should be indifferent to promoting democracy in Egypt. It can encourage the military to take steps to institute democracy that are consistent with stability and holding Islamist radicals at bay. But the U.S. won’t have any influence if it “ruptures” relations with the military.

Nor will it have any important potential partner or ally in Egypt.

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