PARIS—In Washington, in Paris, in Cairo; on the street, in restaurants, at the bus stop; on Twitter, on Facebook, on YouTube, one can hear and find an infinite variety of interpretations of events in Egypt, and an equal number of opinions about the U.S. role there. But most of the time, they boil down to one of two arguments:
The United States and the West should support the Egyptian military. This is the devil we know. Many military leaders have trained at Western institutions. They have the support of secular Egyptians, and they are fighting a legitimate battle against the forces of radical Islam, which will otherwise engulf Egypt just as they engulfed Iran. Although nobody said so explicitly, this was clearly the view of the Obama administration in the wake of the coup. Secretary of State John Kerry put it best, in an unguarded moment, when he was speaking on Pakistani television. "The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descent into chaos," he declared. "In effect, they were restoring democracy."
The United States and the West should support the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohammed Morsi may not have been the most effective leader of Egypt, but now he is effectively under arrest. Never mind that Morsi's instincts were anti-liberal or that his clear intention was to place the Muslim Brotherhood in control of Egypt's judicial and political institutions. We ought to have supported him when he was in power, and now that he is out of power, his cause is even more important. His followers are being murdered and tortured. We should organize ourselves on their behalf and in their defense.
Both arguments have merit. But both also have a central flaw, especially when made through tweets, sound bites, press releases, and other nuance-free forms of communication. They divide the Egyptian scene into two warring camps—Morsi vs. the generals, secular vs. Islamic, military vs. Brotherhood—thus tempting everyone to take sides.
Which is ridiculous, since it's none of our business who runs Egypt and we shouldn't be "backing" anybody at all. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel came close to this view, earlier this week, when he declared that "[i]t's up to the Egyptian people. And they are a large, great, sovereign nation. And it will be their responsibility to sort this out."
But neither Hagel nor anyone else in the administration has taken the next logical step. True, it's up to the Egyptian people. Also true, we shouldn't back one group over another, in Egypt or else. Those sorts of political games have won the United States an appalling reputation in the Middle East and elsewhere because they invariably backfire. We support the "pro-Americans," ignore their unpopularity, and are shocked when they fall. Or we support the "modernizers," who then turn out to be dictators, and we are shocked when they fall. The particularly virulent strain of anti-Americanism in Egypt comes, in part, from our mostly uncritical support for Egyptian dictators in the past.
But there is another way to think about all this. The United States can and should stand for the rule of law, stable institutions, and democracy. And by "democracy," I mean not just an election organized by the international community but the principle that power should change hands peacefully, inclusively, and according to a set of rules accepted by all social groups. In societies such as Egypt—or Syria—the advocacy of democracy isn't ideology but common sense. The alternative, after all, is that power changes hands violently, that some ethnic or religious groups are left out of the political process, and that social discontent remains very high.
Had the Obama administration thought about Egypt in these terms, it might have had a rational, intelligible policy over the past several years. When Hosni Mubarak was in power, we should have pressured him, loudly and clearly, to hold elections. When Morsi was president, we should have called on him, equally loudly and clearly, to share power with other groups, to make concessions to minorities, to make sure that a flawed constitution was interpreted as fairly as possible. Now that the military is in power, we should come out loudly and clearly against its coup and use whatever limited influence we have to persuade the generals to return Egypt to constitutional rule.
It sounds simple, but of course it isn't. If Kerry can confuse a millions-strong demonstration with "democracy" and if President Obama can't bring himself to use the word "coup," then it will be difficult for this administration to be clear, firm, and consistent about the events unfolding not only in Egypt but also in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere around the world.