Tom Friedman’s Faulty Advice on Egypt

Regrettably, Tom Friedman’s policy advice on Egypt (“Egypt’s Three Revolutions”) is simply counseling the Obama administration to continue making the same mistakes that have bedeviled U.S. policy towards Egypt for decades.

Successive U.S. administrations have given more or less unquestioning backing to whichever power in Cairo they thought might maintain stability and uphold narrowly defined U.S. vital interests, like the peace treaty with Israel and counterterrorism cooperation.  Without a change in its approach, the U.S. government risks losing its valuable strategic partner to a downward spiral of dysfunction and instability.

The arrangement of backing stability – to the detriment of human rights and democracy – worked, or at least appeared to, for decades; but the costs to America’s reputation in the region, and to the Egyptian people subjected to increasingly inept authoritarian rule, were high. Since the overthrow of President Mubarak in February 2011 the Obama administration has sought in vain for a new stable partner in Cairo, giving unmerited support to rule by a military council, the SCAF, and by an elected, but authoritarian, leader from the Muslim Brotherhood.  It should not compound these errors by now giving unconditional backing to a government installed by military coup.

U.S. law requires the suspension of military and economic assistance to a country following the removal of a democratically elected leader by a military coup.  The administration should follow this law and should make clear to the Egyptian authorities that the United States is eager to support Egypt in a democratic transition, but not in a lawless factional dispute that is rapidly degenerating into violence.

When we ask Egyptian human rights and democracy activists what they want from the U.S. government we are invariably told that the United States should stand up for the universal values of human rights and for the rule of law that it claims to wish to advance.  They are hard pressed to see any indication that the United States is doing that when U.S. policy is, in fact, guided by quite different priorities – to find a serviceable, stable ruler who will be cooperative on issues we care about.

This shortsighted policy is driving Egypt into a state of collapse and ungovernability; (and arguably has been doing so for decades) it is past time for the Obama administration to recognize that the old policies have failed catastrophically and that a new approach – rooted in support for human rights and the rule of law – is urgently needed.

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Published on July 26, 2013

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