A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi rests his hands on barbed wire fence.
A member of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi rests his hands on barbed wire fence near Republican Guard headquarters in Nasr City, a suburb of Cairo July 19, 2013. Thousands of Morsi supporters took to the streets of several Egyptian cities on Friday to demand that the military reinstate the country's first freely elected leader.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters

Egypt used to be a poster child for those who believed that the Arab uprising would usher in a new wave of democracy. When Egyptians dethroned former President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and held elections just over a year later, some Western politicians were exuberant. Hillary Clinton, then U.S. Secretary of State, for example, referred to the vote as “historic,” marking “another important milestone in [Egypt’s] transition to democracy.”

Faced with the July 2013 military coup that deposed Mubarak’s presidential successor, Mohamed Morsi, Western politicians might be inclined to turn away from Egypt in frustration. But, as I argued in “The Mirage of the Arab Spring,” U.S. policy should not be hamstrung by a narrow focus on democratization. More than ever, the United States and its allies should think first about protecting their vital strategic interests in Egypt and the region. 

For those surprised by the military coup, it is worth remembering that democracy was never the Egyptian protesters’ most important goal. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, most Egyptians were more interested in a stronger economy, a more robust judiciary, and improved law and order than in elections and freedom of speech. Under Morsi, democracy did little to stop dwindling foreign investment, disruptions in manufacturing, declines in tourism, and general lawlessness. Many Egyptians, as always, wanted to feed their families first and came to believe that ousting Morsi was the first step.  

By May 2013, only 30 percent of Egyptians believed the country was headed in the right direction, down from 53 percent in 2012 and 65 percent in 2011, according to the same Pew Research Center Poll. Roughly three-quarters of Egyptians said that the economy was in bad shape, and only 39 percent of Egyptians believed that they were better off since Mubarak’s departure.

In the aftermath of the coup, the prospects for stability in Egypt are dim. For some Muslim Brotherhood supporters, the military coup is a reason to take up arms. Egyptian security services are holding Morsi in custody, they have arrested key Muslim Brotherhood leaders such as Khairat al-Shater, and may not allow the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party to participate in future elections. And after their intervention, the military and security services shut down Misr 25, the Muslim Brotherhood’s television station, and several Salafi-oriented stations. They closed a Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated newspaper and have tried to take down at least two Muslim Brotherhood Web sites.

Given Egypt’s increasing volatility, the United States should focus on several priorities.

The first is to help prevent a civil war in Egypt. Some supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood appear to be preparing for a lengthy struggle against the Egyptian military and have access to an abundance of weapons and ammunition. 

Although there are several differences between Egypt today and Algeria in the early 1990s, Egypt’s transitional government should take to heart the Algerians’ experience. The Algerian government’s decision to ban the Islamic Salvation Front and cancel democratic elections triggered a decade-long civil war that killed as many as 100,000 Algerians. In Egypt, the United States should encourage the Egyptian government to allow the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties to participate in future elections, so long as they abstain from violence and commit to the peaceful rotation of power. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood will agree to this condition remains to be seen.

Second, the United States and its allies need to work with Egyptian officials to continue fighting terrorism. The terrorist group that was involved in the 2012 assassination of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, hailed from Egypt and has direct ties to al Qaeda. A range of terrorist groups in the Sinai, including Hamas and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, pose a threat to Egypt and other governments in the region. What is more, at least three al Qaeda–affiliated organizations -- al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Shabaab in Somalia, and al-Nusrah Front in Syria -- publicly called for Egyptians to take up arms against the Egyptian government. Based on these threats, the United States should share intelligence on key terrorist organizations with Egyptian security services and continue to press for the arrest of operatives.

Third, U.S. policymakers should encourage liberal reforms, support civil society, and provide technical assistance to revise Egypt’s constitution and shore up its financial system. But Washington should not base its policy on the assumption that either Egypt -- or the region -- will democratize quickly.

Democracy is virtually impossible to impose from the outside. Any effort by Washington to bring it to Egypt will fail if local social and economic conditions are not ripe. The military coup in Egypt is a sign that they are not and that Washington should conduct its policy with the Arab world it has, not the Arab world it wishes to have.

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