On Wednesday, the White House thanked Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first civilian president and a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, for his "constructive" contribution to a Gaza cease-fire, implicitly affirming Egypt's role as a stabilizing force in a troubled region. Just one day later, after having proved his strategic value in much the same way his predecessor did, Morsi took another page from Hosni Mubarak's playbook by placing his decrees beyond any judicial review. Many Egyptians saw this as a power grab. Under pressure from the judiciary, Morsi this week appears to have partially relented. But the signal he sent, at home and abroad, suggests he wants near-dictatorial powers.
Washington has to ask: Who then governs Egypt? An ideologue bent on using political power to Islamize Egypt or a pragmatic national leader committed to advancing the interests of all the people? Or, is he a bit of both?
The jury is out and may be for some time. After examining politics in the "new Egypt" for three months, we have concluded that not only are the answers uncertain but that the revolution that swept Mubarak from power nearly two years ago is not over. Fundamental questions about the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood, the popularity of the even more extreme Salafists, the potential unity of non-Islamist parties, the role of the military in politics and the approach all these actors take toward key U.S. interests — including peace with Israel — remain profoundly unclear.
But analytical uncertainty is not a policy. Egypt is important: It is the largest, most powerful Arab state, birthplace of both Anwar Sadat and Ayman Zawahiri and all they represent. Washington has a stake in the choices its new government makes. Certain outcomes are more likely than others to lead to an Egypt willing to cooperate with the United States on critical issues, and the U.S. should work to advance the prospects of such cooperation.
The main source of American leverage with Egypt is the substantial military and economic assistance we provide and the even more substantial influence we wield with international donors vital to Egypt's effort to avert financial calamity. Some contend the U.S. should speed aid and support to Egypt, with loose and minimal conditions, to prevent it from going over its own fiscal cliff and becoming a failed state. Others argue that Washington should withhold aid and support because the U.S. has no interest in the success of an Islamist government that could become a model for the spread of radical Sunni extremism in the region.
We reject both options. It is too risky to provide Egypt with virtually unconditional aid and support, feeding a dangerous sense of entitlement that would free its leaders from taking the necessary decisions to repair the economy and pursue responsible policies. But it also is too risky to endanger America's strategic situation by purposefully contributing to the creation of a potentially failed state astride the Suez Canal and across the Sinai from Israel.
We advocate a third course: presenting Egyptian leaders with a set of choices that offer a pathway to act as responsible national leaders rather than as religiously inspired ideologues. Indeed, while it is a mistake to believe the United States can persuade or compel the Islamists governing Egypt to give up their deeply held ideology, it is not wrong to base policy on the idea that American leverage can affect Egyptian behavior. We call this a policy of "engagement without illusions."
Specifically, we recommend that President Obama agree to certify to Congress that Egypt must fulfill two well-defined sets of commitments — on regional peace and on bilateral strategic cooperation — as a condition of continued U.S. aid and political backing for international loans. In addition, through private conversation and public messaging, the president and congressional leaders should explain to Egyptians an informal condition: The United States can maintain a close and mutually beneficial relationship only with a government that is moving forward on constitutional democracy and not engaged in substantial violations of human rights or measures against women and religious minorities.
Finally, the administration should use a portion of Egypt's military aid — at least $100 million to start, and increasing over time — as incentive for more aggressive efforts to combat terrorism in the Sinai, given the urgency of this issue to U.S. interests.
But it is not enough to build this interest-based relationship with the Morsi government. We urge the administration to engage with the broadest possible spectrum of political actors in Egypt. This includes building ties with non-Islamist groups, despite their internal divisions and deep disunity, as well as spending funds for civil society support. Re-energizing U.S. outreach beyond the Muslim Brotherhood is both right and smart. Not only is this a way to guard against the widely held impression that Washington actually made the Brotherhood's rise to power possible, but strengthening the non-Islamist opposition presents the best opportunity for pulling the governing Islamists in a more moderate direction.
This is not an easy policy to implement. But building a relationship with Egypt based on a clear strategic bargain — offering benefits for cooperation and penalties for noncompliance – is in the best interest of both our countries.
Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, and Gregory B. Craig, President Obama's former White House counsel, are the authors of the Washington Institute report, "Engagement Without Illusions: Building an Interest-Based Relationship with the 'New Egypt.'"