This editorial appeared in the New York Times.
With yet another bloodbath in the streets of Cairo on Wednesday, Egypt’s ruling generals have demonstrated beyond any lingering doubt that they have no aptitude for, and apparently little interest in, guiding their country back to democracy.
On the contrary, the political obtuseness of Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt’s de facto leader, and the brutal repression he has unleashed now threaten to produce the worst of all possible outcomes to an already-inflamed situation: a murderous civil war.
That would be a tragedy for Egypt, which until recently believed it was on a path to ending decades of repression and dictatorship. And it would be a foreign-policy disaster for the United States. Egypt is the most populous and influential country in the Arab world. It is also Israel’s most strategically important neighbor.
President Barack Obama must make clear his unequivocal opposition to the Egyptian military’s conduct. He can do so by immediately suspending military aid, following his decision Thursday to cancel joint military exercises scheduled for September. Until the generals change their ways, the United States should slam the door on an aid program that has provided the Egyptian military with a munificent $1.3 billion a year for decades.
Those who argue that this aid gives the United States leverage can no longer do so with a straight face. Time and again, repeated phone calls from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to el-Sissi asking for restraint and similar exhortations by Secretary of State John Kerry have been ignored.
Kerry spoke out again Wednesday, but it is now up to Obama to act. A cautious statement from a deputy press secretary in Martha’s Vineyard that the Obama administration “strongly condemns” the violence and is reviewing the aid program is unlikely to get the generals’ attention. Obama’s decision to cancel next month’s joint exercises might prove to be an effective measure.
And if suspending a $1.3 billion subsidy does not do the trick, it will at least tell rank-and-file Egyptians that the United States is no longer underwriting repression.
Hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were killed Wednesday when military and police units used helicopters, snipers, bulldozers and tear gas to evict them from two camp areas in Cairo. The military proclaimed a monthlong nationwide state of emergency, while the “transitional government” named 25 new provincial governors — 19 of them generals.
The transitional government is little more than window dressing for military rule. Those liberals and moderates who have enabled and emboldened the military have been complicit in this deception. One prominent liberal democrat, Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Prize winner, resigned Wednesday as interim vice president.
The Muslim Brotherhood also must share responsibility. Since the July 3 coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, it has shown too little interest in negotiating a peaceful path out of the crisis. And even before that coup, Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders had displayed little interest in reaching out to Egyptians of different political and religious persuasions.
But the major blame rests with el-Sissi. He seized power from a democratically elected government. He controls the security forces that have persecuted and brutalized political opponents. And he approved orders for heavily armed forces to use deadly force against peaceful protesters with a very legitimate political grievance — the ouster and secret detention of Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
Washington’s influence on Egyptian public opinion generally is limited. That has less to do with the low-key tone Obama has taken than with the preceding decades of uncritical United States support for past dictators like Mubarak and the military forces supporting them, to the neglect of most of Egypt’s 84 million people.
It is past time for Obama to start correcting that imbalance. Suspending assistance to Egypt’s anti-democratic military would be a good place to start.