Both the Muslim Brotherhood and its liberal opponents are using U.S. policy toward Egypt as a whipping boy to rally support for their respective causes during the current turmoil in that country. Liberal demonstrations have claimed that the Obama administration had supported the Brotherhood and its former President Mohamed Morsi. Yet the Brotherhood has claimed that despite the U.S. government’s neutral rhetoric during the latest crisis–calling on all sides to rein in violence from their supporters–American diplomats secretly pressured the Brotherhood to resign itself to Morsi’s ouster by the Egyptian military, re-enter the political process, and thus legitimate the coup. Both sides are correct. How can this be?
In cases in which the forces of stability (read: those protecting U.S. economic, political, or military interests) and democracy are arrayed against each other, the United States, despite its usual soaring democratic rhetoric, often sides with stability. In fact, in some cases, the United States has helped overthrow democratically elected governments in favor of more "stable" authoritarian regimes – for example, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Congo in 1961, Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1973, to name just a few.
In 2011, the United States reluctantly accepted the Egyptian military’s overthrow of its long-standing ally, Hosni Mubarak, as president of Egypt. The United States finally realized that popular discontent in that country had gone decisively against its autocrat. Despite long-standing U.S. suspicions about the Muslim Brotherhood’s moderate Islamist ways, the United States had no choice but to work with Mohamed Morsi, the resoundingly elected Brotherhood candidate for president.
In 2013, however, after only a year of his being in power, the U.S. government saw a chance to get rid of Morsi. In the United States, both Democratic and Republican administrations always feel the need to rhetorically back the promotion of democracy, no matter if their underlying policy deviates significantly from that stated goal – as it has apparently done in this case. If the United States truly supported democracy in Egypt, one would have expected a vigorous U.S. denunciation of a military coup against a government selected by fair elections. Instead, an important clue to the real U.S. underlying policy was the neutral "all sides need to restrain violence" statements emanating from Washington.
Morsi was not a perfect democrat by American standards, but in the developing world, such a high bar is rarely achieved. Although Morsi did issue a high-handed decree extending his powers, he rescinded it under pressure after an outpouring of democratic sentiment against it. (Is this so different from President George W. Bush’s attempts to grab more executive power after 9/11–to be only partially reined in by a popular backlash and the U.S. Supreme Court?) Morsi did not dissolve Egypt’s lower house of parliament – that was Egypt’s supreme administrative court – and he did invite opposition leaders to join his cabinet but they refused. Even in the recent turmoil, he showed an inclination to compromise by offering to form a government of national unity and accelerate the timing of elections for a new parliament.
However, the United States was less worried about Morsi’s imperfect democratic behavior and had always been more concerned with his Islamist orientation. The U.S. government could have had a clear democratic conscience by continuing to work with Morsi, if he had been allowed to remain in power but instead decided it was a good time to secretly back the Egyptian military in getting rid of him. And U.S. backroom support for a coup is important in Egypt; the United States has always had significant influence with Egyptian armed forces because it provides $1.6 billion annually in aid to Egypt–with most of it going to the military.
In fact, apparently the U.S. government is even more concerned about preserving U.S. military aid to Egypt – to retain its influence – than are some in the Egyptian armed forces, according to Egyptian military officials. So in indirectly blessing the Egyptian military’s contravention of democracy’s rule of law, the U.S. government is violating its own. American law requires the ending of U.S. aid in the event that any foreign nation falls victim to an undemocratic coup–so the U.S. government is just avoiding use of the term "coup" for what obviously is one in Egypt.
The underlying reality was that the United States was concerned that the Islamist Morsi would not be as good at maintaining the peace agreement with Israel as would a government blessed by the Egyptian military, which gets the U.S. aid to do just that. It doesn’t take much detective work to discover that Israel is the top priority of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Successful attempted U.S. coercion on the Brotherhood to re-enter politics would have tamped down a violent reaction to the coup from the Islamist street, legitimized the putsch, and allowed the window dressing of Brotherhood participation in a sham "democracy" that would have really existed only under the shadow of future potential military intervention. However, the Brotherhood has resisted such U.S. pressure and seems to be gearing up to massively challenge the coup in the streets, perhaps violently. Nevertheless, the United States still attempts to keep up the façade of advocating peaceful political participation and inclusive democracy, while implicitly backing the overthrow of the Islamists, who had received three-fourths of the vote in what had been a legitimate election.
Unfortunately, the Egyptian coup discourages other Islamist groups in the Middle East from participating in the democratic process and may further radicalize them. A better overall policy would have been to match U.S. impartial rhetoric with truly neutral behind-the-scenes behavior. But after decades of profligate unnecessary U.S. meddling in the affairs of other nations, everyone in Egypt (and everywhere else) expected superpower intervention in some way; unfortunately, they have not been disappointed.