Egypt is dissolving into civil war. When that process begins, it is almost impossible to stop. But the United States should try.
The elected government in Egypt, which so many people around the world believed would be the Middle East’s crown jewel of democracy, collapsed under the weight of its incompetence and its acts of terror against domestic political enemies. The streets of Cairo today feature more homelessness, hunger, and violence.
Now a military coup has occurred, which to some, in and out of Egypt, seemed a relief. But the new government has been slaughtering civilians and it too is unable to establish order.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), the de-facto GOP leader in Congress on military and foreign policy, says the United States should cut off foreign aid until Egypt has a responsible government. Under the letter of the law, a coup means we should do just that.
But Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island says we should use our aid as an incentive and a bargaining chip: Tell the generals in charge that if they respect human rights, we will keep the $1 billion a year coming.
Senator Reed’s position would seem wiser. But even a billion dollars worth of clout may not get us what we want in Egypt — not only majority rule, but also respect for the rule of law and minority rights — anytime soon.
Classically, this form of liberalism must occur in nation-states before the arrival of true democracy. Egypt tried to skip this step, and it didn’t work. It can take decades to cultivate democracy. And there is no culture of freedom in Egypt.
Nor is there a leader in Egypt like the late Anwar Sadat, who could unite disparate groups and rule as a benign dictator while respecting basic human liberties.
Egypt needs to start by ending its epidemic of street rapes and shootings. It needs a regime that does not seek to destroy its opponents.
There are no good guys here, so far. The deposed Muslim Brotherhood government presided over by Mohamed Morsi was oppressive. The military leaders now in charge may prove even more brutal.
Senator McCain has great faith in American power. But this power is far from absolute — the United States cannot impose a good and free society on Egypt. Yet we can try to influence those who have power and want our aid money.
It is wrong simply to wring our hands. It’s simple-minded to think we can “fix” the disaster that is now Egypt. It’s right, though, to use what power we do have to stop the rape and the killings.
We should leverage our foreign aid in exchange for concessions on basic human rights, and try to retard Egypt’s further descent into bloodshed and chaos.