Editorial: Egypt can't be allowed to descend into civil war

Published: Thursday, Jul. 4, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 8, 2013 - 6:33 pm

The military coup in Egypt is a major setback for democracy only one year after the first presidential election.

But it is hardly surprising, given how badly President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood mismanaged their first year in power, utterly failing to tap the aspirations of the Egyptian people. This was a chance to demonstrate that they could bring people together across religions, political views and economic backgrounds. They blew it.

So where does that leave the United States?

President Barack Obama is right to press for the earliest possible elections and a return to civilian rule. We should avoid taking sides with Morsi or the military. Our aim – and that of Egypt's neighbors – should be to avoid a repeat of Algeria in the 1990s, when a military coup overturned an elected Islamist government, leading to a decade of civil war.

Egypt is too central to the politics of the Middle East to let that happen without a good-faith effort to bring the divided parties together – essentially a "do-over" of the Egyptian revolution. No one expected the Arab Spring revolutions would lead to rapid or easy democratic transitions. Getting it right will require persistent organization and effort.

Islamists have gotten a wake-up call. The people won't let them just hijack fledgling democracies.

While Morsi was elected democratically, a court dissolved the elected parliament and Morsi turned the Shura Council – a ceremonial upper house – into a legislature that does the bidding of the Muslim Brotherhood. He rushed a constitution into place and issued decrees giving himself unchecked power.

Marc Ginsberg, a former ambassador and White House Middle East adviser, described Morsi's blundering one-year tenure in the Huffington Post: "Instead of fulfilling his pledge to heal divisions upon taking office Morsi insincerely exacerbated them by abusing his mandate to rule like a modern day pharaoh determined to rid Egypt's government of secular opponents."

There is no love lost for Morsi in the United States.

On the other hand, the United States should not support a military coup. Our historically close ties to the Egyptian military, including $1.3 billion a year in U.S. aid, would bring out charges of the United States green-lighting a coup against a fledgling democracy, which would be a major setback for U.S. foreign policy.

Further, U.S. law prohibits support for any military that institutes a coup against an elected government. The Egyptian military already has received $1.3 billion in weapons and training for 2013. A coup should make that an issue for the next round of aid in spring 2014.

Egypt's secretary of defense, Brig. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has called for presidential and parliamentary elections, a panel to review the constitution and a national reconciliation committee. The United States should hold him to it.

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