Updated: August 30, 2013 10:49AM
President Barack Obama’s call for national reconciliation in Egypt fell on deaf ears for the simple reason that there is no basis for reconciliation. Egypt is locked in an existential struggle for supremacy between the radical Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood and the disorganized and even disparate secular elements of society who have no other agent for their cause than the military.
The bloody confrontations across Egypt have been building since Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2010. He sought to consolidate authority in an Islamist-rooted government, granted himself unlimited powers to legislate without oversight and marginalized Egyptians who didn’t follow the Brotherhood.
Unlike Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has similar goals, Morsi failed to go slow so as to have time to tame the military, police and judiciary, which remained opposed to his radical vision for a new Egypt. If Morsi thought he had neutralized Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with a hands-off attitude toward the military, he was wrong.
Even as anti-Morsi demonstrations grew in the streets of Cairo, the military, which controls much construction, real estate and consumer trade in the country, helped ratchet up anger by manipulating the economy with food and energy shortages. Economic misery, as much as anything else, was at the core of the upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and north Africa these past several years.
Deposed from power, the Muslim Brotherhood has been in no mood for compromise. It massed its own crowds, and weapons too. Feverish cries of Islam over all and praise for martyrdom made the confrontation inevitable. The Brotherhood stayed true to its stripes by using the chaos to attack and burn Coptic Christian churches — anti-Christian violence was a hallmark of Morsi’s reign.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has been behind the curve from the start — slow to criticize Morsi’s agenda that was all but a coup, unable or unwilling to see the fundamental nature of the conflict, and feckless in trying to prevent the overthrow of Morsi and the military crackdown that followed.
In his remarks Thursday, Obama suspended a joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercise and appeared to threaten to cut off $1.3 billion in American aid. But Washington’s ability to influence events with money is shrinking. With the overthrow of Morsi, Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab regimes alarmed by the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood quickly anted up $12 billion or more in aid to Egypt.
The Obama administration might do better to keep its work mostly behind the scenes rather than issue ineffective pronouncements. The goal should be achieving stability to protect the peace treaty Egypt has with Israel, a cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East, and maintain the economic artery of the Suez Canal.
Nightmare scenarios abound. Egypt could descend into civil war. The Brotherhood could wage a bloody terror campaign that could cripple the country’s fragile economy.
A Western-style democracy that Obama called for is not in the foreseeable future. The best outcome may be that the military will re-establish an authoritarian government less repressive but not unlike the kind that ruled the country for half a century before the eruption of the ill-named Arab spring overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Whether he takes the mantle of president or rules as a Eminence grise, Gen. Sisi looks to be the next pharaoh of Egypt.