Sensitivity must guide U.S. on Egypt

Events in Egypt since the military ousted the Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi reveal that progress toward democracy in the Arab world will be complicated, sometimes with tragic reversals. The reality in all Arab countries that people are asserting their right to participate in governing is profoundly positive and fundamentally irreversible, but the path toward stable democracy in the region is uncertain and likely to be long.

In the face of the tumultuous changes taking place, what principles should guide U.S. policy?

An initial set of three principles represent wise warnings against what during the U.S. war in Vietnam Senator J. William Fulbright called “the arrogance of power.”

The first principle, drawn from the still unfolding tragic consequences in Iraq, is that military intervention to impose democracy is arrogant and unrealistic, and should not be tried again.

Second, in relation to the Middle East, it’s essential as Americans that we remember and recognize that people in these countries don’t forget decades of U.S. support for Arab autocrats.

Third, in crafting U.S. policies to respond to the changes, we should avoid generalizing about developments as if all Arab countries are the same. We should respect that the factors and forces influencing change in each country are different and, as happened historically in America and Europe, stable, genuinely inclusive, effectively functioning democracies will take years and possibly decades to develop. Given the massive violence of the U.S. Civil War a century after American independence, periods of dictatorship and two World Wars in Europe, and the current dysfunction in our own democracy, a healthy dose of humility is not only morally appropriate but rationally responsible.

A second set of principles for guiding U.S. policy includes three positive benchmarks for judging progress toward stable democracy.

The first benchmark is the degree to which change is being accomplished nonviolently or with a minimum of violence.

A second benchmark is the degree to which the path to democracy, including adoption of a constitution and elections, is being pursued in a way that is inclusive of all people and political tendencies in the country.

A third basic benchmark principle is the degree to which changes in a country generate real economic and social benefits for majorities of ordinary citizens.

Applying these benchmark principles to the chain of events in Egypt, the U.S. was right to support the essentially nonviolent overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, right to respect the results of the Egyptian elections that brought Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power, and right to support calls for reforms in the heavy-handed, unrepresentative Islamist agenda pursued by the Morsi government.

After massive demonstrations by the more secular, liberal opposition led to the military taking over, the U.S. was right to work with the European Union and Egypt to broker an agreement to end the confrontation and violence between the military and Morsi supporters, some of whom shamelessly launched violent, targeted attacks against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

When the military turned its back on a potential agreement to end the violence, the U.S. was right to condemn the violent suppression of the protestors, which has resulted in more than 1,200 people killed, and risks driving the Muslim Brotherhood underground.

Applying the third benchmark principle to Egypt, neither the Morsi government during its year in power nor the current military-led government so far has given high enough priority to providing real economic and social benefits to the majority of Egyptians. The U.S. was right to reduce aid to the Egyptian military, but we should have shifted some of it to support economic development, possibly targeting young job-generating entrepreneurs.

To save Egypt from further violent conflict and encourage progress toward stable democracy, the United States, working with the international community, not unilaterally, should support the following urgent priorities:

•End the violence and lifting the military imposed state of emergency,

Develop a broadly inclusive process to review and reform the constitution,

Foster economic recovery including restoration of Egypt’s tourist industry,

Facilitate free and fair elections for Parliament and the Presidency in the next twelve months. If the head of Egypt’s military, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, runs for President and wins, tragically, Egypt will have come full-circle off the road to democracy and returned to rule by the military.

As is apparent from these six principles, given the history of U.S. policy in the region and the complexities and uncertainties of the changes under way in the Arab world, encouraging progress toward stable democracies requires the U.S. to respond cautiously to new developments. That sort of sensitivity is difficult for a superpower like the United States, but it is sound advice.

During the initial phase of the popular uprising in Egypt in 2011, Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, wisely warned against any assertive unilateral U.S. initiatives, except one.

“There is one set of U.S. policies,” he advised, “that would positively impact on developments in Egypt and elsewhere … a proactive, aggressive effort to achieve a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.”

Hopefully, that’s what Secretary of State John Kerry, in negotiations with Israelis and Palestinians, is determined to accomplish in 2014.

Ron Young is consultant for the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI). He lives in Everett and can be contacted at This op-ed represents Young’s personal views, not those of NILI.

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