To Support Egypt, or Not?

The question of whether to continue military aid to Egypt despite the July coup and the killing of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators is morally fraught. Strategically, however, it is far less of a dilemma.

At the moment, weakness or retreat by the Egyptian military would embolden the Muslim Brotherhood and encourage it to pursue a more aggressive counterattack. (Its allies in the Sinai have been fighting for weeks.) There is no question at this stage that a return by the Muslim Brotherhood to power in any form would be far worse than the nascent authoritarianism of its one-year rule under Egypt’s experiment with democracy.

Israel is quietly supporting the Egyptian regime because the only the military can be trusted to maintain the 1979 peace treaty, and because it needs Egyptian help to stop Palestinian terrorist groups in the Sinai. Russia is supporting Egypt both because of its broader opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and, far more importantly, because it sees an opportunity to step into a diplomatic vacuum the U.S. has created. Our Arab allies are split: Saudi Arabia wants the Muslim Brotherhood repressed, while Qatar–which launches Al Jazeera America in the U.S. on Tuesday morning–has vigorously backed the Brotherhood in Egypt.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) have demanded that all aid be cut, joining Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who was opposed to aid from the start, for domestic and ideological reasons. Yet even fellow “neoconservatives” like Bill Kristol, who was supportive of democracy in Egypt, have suggested that cutting off aid would sacrifice remaining U.S. leverage–and that military rule might, in fact, be better.

That may or may not be true. It is clear, however, that the Egyptian military is not the Syrian regime. It is brutal, but it is neither willing nor capable of carrying out the kind of attacks on civilians that Bashar al-Assad’s forces have perpetrated. What is at stake is no longer just democracy, or human rights–as recent Brotherhood attacks on churches show. What is at stake is order, without which progress is impossible.

The U.S. can cut off military (as well as economic) aid, but that would not stop efforts to crush the Brotherhood, and would give Russia a greater foothold, which would not bode well for human rights or democracy. There was a strong case for canceling aid when the Brotherhood was abusing its power. Having failed to do so, the Obama administration has few options but to offer tacit support and urge restraint.