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.

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.