What John Kerry Should Have Said in Egypt

I happen to be one of those foreign policy realists who believe that thuggery and illiberal political orders are a long-standing and probably permanent part of the global political landscape, and that the United States must deal with these regimes, particularly when its national security interests are at stake. 

But Egypt’s political tumult is strategically consequential for the United States, both because developments in the country help set the tone for the entire region and because America’s messaging to a bulging youth population, many of whom subscribe to political Islam, matters. Will youthful followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups choose to chase their aspirations through non-violent, political means—or will they resort to violence and terrorism? 

When Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain visited Egypt after this summer’s coup, they delivered the message that political inclusion and elections matter. Graham stated that Muslim Brotherhood members needed to get out of the streets and back to the ballot box. But, with all due respect to the senator, why would they when the military violently deposed and detained their elected leader?

This summer, at a joint meeting in Aspen, Colorado of the Aspen Strategy Group and the Brookings Blum Roundtable on Global Poverty, I asked former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice what the stakes are for the United States and the Middle East/North Africa region if the Muslim Brotherhood is once again driven underground.

She replied:

Egypt is an extraordinarily difficult situation. There are just some things on your desk that you just don't want to get up in the morning to face. If I were Secretary Kerry this would be one, because there are now no really good answers for Egypt. The fact is that if we had been able to get Mubarak to reform, maybe we wouldn't be here—but we are where we are.

I think the only course is to try to get the military to—as quickly as possible—put in place a transition to civilian leadership; and I mean a real transition. That will take some time because one of the problems right now is that the democratic opposition forces are not very well-organized. There's a reason the Muslim Brotherhood ran away with the elections; the Islamists have been the best organized in the Middle East for decades now. And so get a transition in place as quickly as possible. 

The other thing is—I think you put your finger on something very important.   I don't have anything for the Muslim Brotherhood to do. I think they took power and tried to subvert democracy to keep it, full stop. But if the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly maybe some portion of it that really thought they were contesting for political power, if they go underground and don't access the political process in some way, Egypt will not be stable.

And so you've got to find some way for the political process to include some elements of Islamists—and that by the way is true across the Middle East because you can't say, as much as we would like, just because we don't like what you stand for, you can't participate in the political process.

So I think there are really three very urgent tasks. One is to get the military not to use force; secondly, to get the military to organize as quickly as possible a transitional process—give the democrats a little time to get organized; and third, try to find some elements of the Islamists who are prepared to participate in the political process. 

Rice has it right. And her advice to include some constructive Islamists, whom al-Sisi is now killing, detaining, and harassing, would have been good messages for Secretary Kerry to have clearly and forcefully expressed as he met with Egypt’s post-Morsi leaders in Cairo.

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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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