Obama is sending the wrong message by calling for democracy in Egypt

published: 20.08.2013

The violent confrontations across Egypt , the clashes between the army and the Islamists resulting in thousands of casualties, the military curfew - are a tragic sight, far removed from the scenes, only two years ago, of millions chanting "Silmyia, Silmyia " (peaceful, peaceful ) at Tahrir Square. The days when the world observed with optimism the Arab Spring, believing that it would bring democracy to the Middle East, almost seem to belong to another era.

The crisis in Egypt is first and foremost one of identity, rather than merely a struggle for basic freedoms, between political Islam and a fragmented secularism. It is about the future of Egyptian society. Will the millions of Egyptians be ruled by the Sharyia law or by democratically elected officials?

Throughout the Middle East, religion and politics are strongly intermingled. For Islamists, whose power is on the rise almost everywhere in our region, there is no tradition of separating the sacred from the secular. Hence, democracy, the way we understand it in the West, is not a real option.

Ever since the military deposed President Mohamed Morsi and seized power, the Unites States has demanded the "restoration of democratic rule." Many in Congress are pressing the administration to cut off US aid to Egypt. This is a misguided way of reading the map, for even though Morsi was elected democratically, he swiftly morphed into an autocrat, ignoring the reasons for the 2011 overthrow of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and subverting popular will. It seems that for the United States, democratic process counts more than its results. We learned this the hard way just a few years ago when the administration insisted on including Hamas, a terrorist organization, in Palestinian elections in Gaza. The results are well known.

Sadly, one must admit that President Barack Obama's policy in our region is, at best, one of obfuscation. Perhaps it is not surprising that Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, trained at the American War College, makes it clear now that he doesn't need or love America.

Since Morsi's overthrow, al-Sisi has found Saudi Arabia and the Emirates much more generous and supportive than the Americans. "You turned your back on the Egyptians," he accused in a Washington Post interview this week, "and they won't forget that."

Safeguarding human rights has always been one of the tenets of American foreign policy – and one may wonder why gross transgressions of said rights often leave the US president cold. Over 100,000 people have lost their lives in more than two years of civil war in Syria. One can understand the US administration's reluctance to be drawn into military intervention there, but surely Washington could have been more active in trying to put an end to the bloodshed. Obama said more than two years ago that President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons would represent a "red light"- but his words were not followed by actions. Beyond the harm caused by this hesitation, it raises questions regarding American reliability when it comes to our region.

It is unclear whether the standoff in Egypt will develop into an all-out civil war. For both sides, a compromise is unthinkable at this point, since each sees the future of Egypt in a very different way. And yet, only thoroughly inclusive talks between all the Egyptians players can put an end to the bloodshed.

Perhaps, as some specialists have observed, what the Egyptian people really want is a combination of many things, very much along the Turkish model (at least until recently): a balance between democracy and cultural legacy, between basic freedoms and tradition. Above all they want a stable, proud and prosperous nation. This is where the United States could play a role.

This requires US foreign policy to proceed along a sobering course. Calling for a "return" to democracy is more than fallacious: ironically, it sends the wrong message, since it is interpreted by the Islamists as a token of support against the military and emboldens their struggle.

Rather than expecting a Western type model of democracy to emerge from this turmoil, it would be more realistic for the West, and the United States, in particular, to help the Egyptians install a responsible and functioning government. What is urgently needed is a multi-pronged strategy that will ease tensions and bring Egypt back from the brink of anarchy. This is the kind of US leadership we would like to see.

Colette Avital is a former Israeli ambassador and former member of Knesset

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