Apropos of today’s events in Egypt, the U.S. must immediately suspend aid and begin leaning on GCC lines of communication to arrest the country’s slide into hyper-polarized anarchy. I had favored suspension of aid after the July 3 coup, though unlike many in that camp I did not find Washington’s chosen course all that objectionable. The Obama administration had hoped that whatever leverage it held could add a slight preventive check against the type of baldly repressive measures used this morning. Key to understanding their policy was a widely held belief that expanded military and police action represented a strategically self-defeating course of action for GEN Abdul Fattah el-Sisi and his cohorts. Clearly the current military government retains a far different strategic vision; perhaps the apportionment to military benefactors of so many provincial governorships should have, in retrospect, raised flags. And perhaps the initial beatdowns immediately following the coup were meant to be a clear warning shot, not some regrettably muddled mess.
For Washington, professor Marc Lynch just outlined the crux of the argument for a forward course of disengagement:
Egypt’s new military regime, and a sizable and vocal portion of the Egyptian population, have made it very clear that they just want the United States to leave it alone. For once, Washington should give them their wish. As long as Egypt remains on its current path, the Obama administration should suspend all aid, keep the embassy in Cairo closed, and refrain from treating the military regime as a legitimate government.
Lynch is correct, though I would note that U.S. disengagement is in the interests of both Egypt and the U.S.—it’s not as if pre-crackdown U.S. engagement somehow sought to exploit Egyptian troubles for Washington’s own gain. But now, American mediation attempts, diplomatic tacks, and “interference” have little to no value. Not only have American suggestions been ignored, jeered, or relegated to token meetings, but any U.S. commentary on Egypt is used as a populist bludgeon by each side. Washington both put Morsi in power and green-lighted the July 3 coup; Anne Patterson either held secret meetings with Khairat el-Shater or with el-Sisi. It isn’t a particularly effective use of our time to attempt to fight these characterizations; only by disengaging can they fade.
Second, disengagement doesn’t signify abdication of responsibility; the U.S. can and should work through the GCC—especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia—to apply a slight brake on each faction. For Riyadh, the specter of a return to violent Islamist opposition in Egypt should be frightening. For Qatar, the possibility of a completely marginalized Muslim Brotherhood cannot be ignored, as we do not yet know how far the current leaders intend to go in suppressing the organization itself or electoral practice.
Tactically, the U.S. can and should direct humanitarian aid through neutral parties, thereby degrading each faction’s ability to use necessary commodities to hold political processes hostage. In particular, the appointment of GEN Mohamed Abu Shadi to the supplies ministry and plausible, if conspiratorial reports of pre-June 30 rationing indicate that military authorities have the capability and possible intent to follow through on such operations. Conversely, the famously PR-adroit also Muslim Brotherhood stands to gain immensely from any shortages. Local disbursement of simple commodities would also signal American interest in the Egyptian people writ large and, if routed through credible authorities, could partially neutralize extant conspiracy theories about the U.S. “choosing sides.”
It’s difficult to rationalize tending the status quo in Egypt; any future choices made by the military, MB, NSF or various other sub-national actors will invariably be viewed as having been legitimized by the U.S. A further expansion or institutionalization of today’s anti-MB repression or a choice by the Brothers to reject electoral participation in favor of insurgency would inexorably result in blowback for the U.S. if it fails to disengage. As infuriating as it is to disengage as a superpower, overly conservative or impulsive policies will only further push back the date when U.S. engagement is once again welcomed—or at least tolerated—in Egypt.