Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that Egypt’s military was “restoring democracy” when it arrested Mohammed Morsi, an elected president who had become deeply unpopular. Kerry defended the move, arguing that the military had handed power to a civilian caretaker government. Today, as the military intensifies its crackdown on Morsi supporters, killing hundreds, those claims are far harder to make. The brazen killings have forced Kerry to change his tune: He called them “deplorable” Wednesday. The mixed messages from Kerry and other Obama administration officials have not helped. They have only inflamed anti-American sentiment, giving each side in Egypt a reason to be bitter at the United States for appearing to back its enemy.
Predictably, the crackdown hasn’t cowed Morsi supporters. To the contrary, it has emboldened them. Islamists have attacked police stations and churches, even though Christians did not play any special role in Morsi’s ouster.
Egypt’s military and the Muslim Brotherhood — the two largest organizations in the country — are now in a fight to the death over the soul of the country. The removal of Morsi — which Kerry once claimed would save Egypt from civil war — has done just the opposite. The killings are so disturbing that Egyptian Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, a former UN official and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, resigned from the caretaker civilian government in protest. The façade of the civilian caretaker government is falling away. What’s left is the all-too-familiar feel of a military dictatorship.
Given all this, the Obama administration was right to cancel joint military exercises with Egypt. Such a spectacle of cooperation can’t go on while the military kills people in the streets. But Obama should not stop there. While it would be too risky to cancel the entire $1.6 billion US military aid package, which buttresses Egypt’s peace deal with Israel and buys US military access to the Suez Canal, interim steps can send a strong message. Aside from Israel, Egypt is the only country that enjoys the ability to enter into multiyear US defense contracts with funds that Congress has not even appropriated yet. Suspending Egypt’s special “cash flow financing” privileges would get the attention of Egyptian generals.
Perhaps most importantly, US officials must acknowledge that their attempts to nudge Egypt towards democracy have failed. The military’s removal of Morsi, and the subsequent crackdown on the Brotherhood, took place despite repeated warnings from President Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who flew to Cairo to try to personally mediate a solution to the crisis. Despite billions in military aid given over the years, Egypt’s army ignored the US calls for restraint. It’s time to send a stronger message.