The Egyptian army's removal of President Mohammed Morsi gives the Obama administration that rarest of opportunities in foreign policy: a second chance. Getting it right requires understanding where we went wrong the first time.
In early 2011, the Egyptian army appeared to be a reasonable alternative to longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. In retrospect, however, the great error of the United States was born of the overconfidence it placed in the generals. When the White House moved on to Libya and other issues after Mubarak fell, it effectively put Egypt policy on auto-pilot, deferring to the generals on the pace and content of their "democratic transition." Everyone knew the generals' real interest was devising a political system that preserved their power and wealth. But they were "our guys," who understood the overlap of U.S. and Egyptian regional security imperatives — keeping the peace with Israel — and they claimed to appreciate the need for a legitimate, popular political process.
U.S. officials saw the generals make mistake after mistake: failing to draft a constitution, blessing an elections law designed to favor Islamists, giving vent to anti-Christian violence. In public, we often advanced pluralism, religious freedom and economic reform — but we consistently deferred to the generals in private. Even when the transition took an anti-American turn in late 2011, with the arrest and trial of American employees of U.S. government-funded pro-democracy institutions, Washington was embarrassingly quiet.
Thus, the pattern was set for U.S. relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, which came to power in 2012, and its representative in the presidential palace, Morsi. Like the generals, the Brotherhood promised a measure of stability, including a frigid peace with Israel. All it asked was to be left alone. When "nation building at home" was the new American motif, the offer was alluring.
The administration may have talked the talk of civil rights and tolerance, but it did nothing when journalists, activists and ordinary citizens were jailed for blaspheming Islam or insulting the president. And there can be no greater riposte to the U.S. retreat in support of civil society than the millions of Egyptians who have filled streets in recent days to take back their country.
With Egypt's army again in charge, the Obama administration cannot repeat its errors of the last episode of military rule, when everything was sacrificed on the altar of stability. Obama has said that the United States rejects the false choice between democracy or stability; nowhere is this more apropos than Egypt. In the post-Morsi world, Washington should articulate a policy in which U.S. support for Egypt is conditioned not just on Egypt's peace with Israel but also on continual movement toward building a democratic, pluralistic government that pursues sound economic policies. That means engaging broadly with Egypt's political spectrum, not just the ruling party; offering vocal defense of minorities (Christians, Bahais, Shiites); reinvesting in civil society programs that help Egyptians translate their street activism into political organization; and leading a disciplined "friends of Egypt" grouping that promises substantial financial assistance but only to cushion the impact of overdue cuts in bloated subsidies. All this requires leadership from Washington.
The writer is executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.