Obama gets Egypt backwards

I was elated when the Egyptian military overthrew the elected government of Muslim Brotherhood man Mohamed Morsi. Under Morsi, Egypt seemed on the road to becoming an Islamist state. The overthrow looked like the lesser of two evils.

It still does, but the lesser evil is gaining ground. Earlier this week, for example, an Egyptian court sentenced 683 people to death after a brief mass trial. The most serious charge involved the death of one police officer killed during mass protests by Morsi supporters. The real crime seems to be taking to the streets in support of the man Egypt had elected president.

The sham trial is part of a larger pattern of intense repression that is difficult to excuse. The Muslim Brotherhood poses a threat that cannot be ignored. But mass executions and imprisonments aren’t the answer.

If the product of the Arab Spring is the replacement of Mubarak by a more repressive alternative, then it’s probably just a matter of time until that alternative is replaced by something worse yet, and maybe something worse than Morsi.

The military government seems safe for now because the population craves stability and economic improvement. But given Egypt’s problems, the military is unlikely to deliver the latter. And in that context, if it can deliver stability only through intense repression, the stability will not last.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has, in my view, been wrongheaded about Egypt throughout. First, the Arab Spring took it by complete surprise. Second, it backed the anti-American, anti-democratic Morsi regime. Third, when the military took over, Obama still seemed to side with Morsi, thereby forfeiting credibility with the new regime.

And now, as the military discredits itself, Obama is finally cozying up to it. He has released $650 million worth of military aid and is welcoming Egypt’s foreign minister to Washington for talks aimed at smoothing relations between the two nations.

Obama has gotten it backwards. A competent, America-centric president would have supported the ouster of the anti-American Islamist regime and immediately established good relations with the strong, non America-hating horse. Obama would then have been in a decent position to attempt to steer the military government away from its overly repressive course.

As it is, Obama can’t be too critical of the Egyptian government if he hopes to smoothen relations. In any event, the Egyptian government has little reason to listen to Obama since (among other good reasons not to listen to a president of such diminished stature) it can’t be confident that Obama shares its objective of opposing the Muslim Brotherhood.

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