Egypt’s security forces have now moved decisively to eliminate Muslim Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo, producing the bloodshed foretold by daily confrontations between the Brotherhood’s supporters and opponents. Six weeks after the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt remains deeply and violently divided — and American policy is confused and irresolute.
While confusion and irresolution are nothing new to the Obama administration, this is not the place to dither or make strategic mistakes. We must define precisely what U.S. priorities are in light of Egypt’s strategic significance, and given the potential for protracted hostilities there between armed combatants.
By identifying our interests, we can concentrate our energies and resources on advancing them in practical ways, avoiding an essentially academic debate over issues we can’t significantly influence. Because our resources are not unlimited, we have to focus our political time and attention, as well as our more tangible assets and capabilities, where they can do the most good.
First, Egypt’s continued adherence to the 1979 Camp David peace agreements with Israel is essential. Anwar Sadat’s courageous decision to negotiate directly with Israel was critical not only to establishing this foundation of America’s overall Middle East policy, but also evidenced Egypt’s momentous shift, after the death of longtime dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, away from the Soviet Union. Sadat’s sea change in allegiance provided an opening the U.S. used to undermine Moscow’s extensive regional influence, and was an early sign that the Cold War was entirely winnable.
In 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Sadat for his troubles, reflecting that then, as now, the Brotherhood has only contempt for Egyptian leaders who seek peace with Israel. If Morsi had enjoyed only a slightly longer tenure in office, he would likely have abrogated Camp David entirely.
The treaty’s demise would have even further reduced U.S. influence throughout the Middle East, renewed opportunities for anti-American, anti-Israeli radicals and increased threats to friendly Arab regimes prepared to live with Egyptian (and Jordanian) peace treaties with Israel. Make no mistake, if Washington takes Camp David for granted, it will disappear, and quickly.
Second, the economically vital Suez Canal runs through Egypt. If passage is blocked, as it was in the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, or for years after the 1967 Six-Day War, Europe and America will suffer, and so will Egypt. Already, 2 1/2 years of domestic instability have made the Sinai Peninsula a haven for terrorists and devastated Egypt’s economy, with both foreign investment and tourism revenues plummeting.
Until political stability is restored, the nation’s Gross Domestic Product will continue eroding, impoverishing the entire society and further straining already weakened social cohesion.
What Washington needs to do is clear. U.S. policy should be to support only Egyptian leaders unambiguously committed to Camp David, both to its terms and to its broader regional significance. And we must assist those who place highest priority on repairing Egypt’s badly weakened economy and securing its international economic obligations, particularly safe transit through the Suez Canal.