What John Kerry Should Have Said in Egypt

America’s chief diplomat failed to condemn the military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. And the stakes couldn’t be bigger.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry participates in a joint news conference with Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy in Cairo, November 3, 2013. (Jason Reed/Reuters) 

Secretary of State John Kerry stumbled into a hornet’s nest with the Egypt slice of his 11-day trip to the Middle East and North Africa. 

Someone should have advised Kerry that it’s simply too soon for a Scowcroft-goes-to-China maneuver—the tactic made famous by President George H.W. Bush’s efforts to get U.S.-China relations back on track after the Chinese regime’s bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. 

During his visit to Cairo on Sunday, which included a meeting with Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Kerry said nothing about the upcoming trial of the coup-ousted Mohammed Morsi, which began on Monday. In sending a message to Egypt’s military overlord that U.S.-Egypt strategic relations are vital and that America wants Egypt back in its fold, the secretary could be fueling the rise of another Mubarak, with enormous consequences for whether young Egyptians, whose ranks are swelling, choose violence or democratic methods to realize their collective goals.

Regrettably, it’s increasingly in vogue for some Egypt analysts to say that if a national election were held tomorrow, al-Sisi would win overwhelmingly.  And perhaps that’s not all that surprising. As hyper-nationalism rises in Egypt, the general’s photo is popping up everywhere, plastered on the sides of buildings, trucks, and backpacks—and recalling the flag-waving, fear-based frenzy that accompanies leadership transitions in North Korea.

But amid the al-Sisi-mania, resentment is also building—a dynamic not dissimilar to the one that played out under the long and corrupt tenure of President Hosni Mubarak, who managed Egypt’s affairs with a tight fist through the country’s military and intelligence wings. While some American liberals applaud the return of a secular strongman who supports a somewhat gender-balanced, religiously diverse order (so long as the armed forces get their fair share of Egyptian commerce), the truth is the Arab Spring—in Egypt and elsewhere—has given way to an Arab gloom.

In a dramatic illustration of the gaping, unresolved rifts now dividing Egyptians, Morsi, who has been held incommunicado since the military removed him from power in July, stood defiantly on Monday in a Cairo courtroom, where he is charged with inciting murder. The legitimately elected, then deposed president refused to wear the garb of a prisoner, insisting on a professional blue business suit and demanding a microphone to be heard. 

In an electric statement, he exclaimed, “There is a military coup in the country.”   And he is right. Sure, millions did take to the streets to protest Morsi’s government, arguing that he “betrayed the values of the revolution” and engineered “a coup against the spirit of Tahrir.” But the former Egyptian leader’s tenure was not terminated through electoral challenge, or by the kind of legislative dysfunction on display recently in Washington, involving a system of checks and balances designed to paralyze an overzealous chief executive. Morsi, a civilian, was toppled by Egypt’s armed forces.

Egyptian liberals, much like liberals in many corners of the world today, revolted against Mubarak to end the state’s control over their lives, but then were unable in the ensuing chaos to assemble a coherent national vision and a roster of formidable national leaders who reflected the spirit of the revolution, ceding the political arena instead to the better organized, narrowband Muslim Brotherhood.

Today, some of these progressives are being threatened, harassed, and detained by Egypt’s military regime.  The prime example of late is Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s—and arguably the Middle East’s—most popular comic, who found himself in court last week for subtle pokes he made against the new order (the jokes deriding Morsi were much less subtle last season!) during the first show of the new season of his program, El- Bernameg, which has since been suspended. Each week, 30 million viewers tune in to hear Youssef’s Jon Stewart-like satire of affairs inside the country. He’s a big deal, and his humor was a sign of green democratic shoots—until they were trampled.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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