How America can get Egypt back on track

August 16, 2013

This week’s clashes between the Egyptian military and pro-Muslim Brotherhood protestors were predictable and, at the cost of over five hundred lives, tragic. And with the Brotherhood calling for more marches and demonstrations, the violence may worsen before it begins to decrease.

Western leaders are now scrambling to try to halt the killing and create some form of political reconciliation. The United States has the most important role, as the patron-in-chief of the Egyptian armed forces, must play the leading role in this political drama. On Thursday morning, President Obama decried the actions of Egypt’s interim government since the coup-that-wasn’t as well as yesterday’s bloodshed, which included violence by protestors, by the military, and against churches. He insisted that Egypt should commit to a path of nonviolence and democracy and cancelled upcoming joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises.

In the end, it is difficult for statesmen—even the most idealistic—to resist the overwhelming incentives to make decisions on the basis of core national interests above second-order interests such as the spread of democracy and human rights. This is not a criticism, but rather a recognition that while the streets of Cairo have been restive, America’s core interests in the Middle East and North Africa have remained stable. These interests are commonly understood as access and trade through the Suez Canal and maintaining peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and, consequently, stability in the Mediterranean littoral.

As such, President Obama’s administration was careful to orchestrate Mubarak’s stable departure and has since sought to maintain friendly relations with whoever might be in charge in Cairo. When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces overthrew Mohamed Morsi, President Obama was—and remains–reluctant to brand the event a “coup,” as that would trigger a legally mandated end to sizeable U.S. military aid that is thought to keep the peace between Israel and Egypt. Even after Wednesday’s massacre, he still labeled it an “intervention.”

But the White House appears to understand that core American interests do not stop at the Suez and peace with Israel.

Read the rest at The National Interest.