Anne Patterson rates among the country’s most respected and effective diplomats. No surprise, then, that she has been leading the U.S. Embassy in Cairo during a rocky time for Egypt, moving from the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak to a volatile experiment in democracy. Not long ago, with opposition to Mohammed Morsi building, the ambassador reminded an Egyptian audience that legitimate elections matter in a democracy, the result at the polls deserving respect.
Her words angered many opponents of Morsi, and they had the final word on the fate of his presidency, the Egyptian army responding to the huge public protests, issuing an ultimatum and then removing the elected president from office last week. Yet Patterson had a point, and one hardly out of line. A crucial test of democratic rule involves the capacity to transfer power without guns.
No question, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood made mistakes, colossal ones, starting with their failure to read well the vote that brought them to power. They won narrowly, requiring them to reach out to build relationships with rivals, helping to secure democratic rule and keeping the powerful military at bay. They didn’t follow such a course, opting, instead, to tilt things in their favor. They sought to advance their Islamist agenda. They rewarded friends and partisans.
Many of their actions appeared fueled by a long, bitter struggle with the military, all of it proving a distraction from the urgent work of repairing the Egyptian economy and gaining public confidence.
Might Patterson and the Obama White House have acted in ways that made Morsi more responsive? There is a temptation to answer yes, citing the leverage of $1.5 billion in American aid to Egypt. Yet such pushing carries its own potentially dark consequences, Morsi and colleagues looking like the puppets of Washington, or far from a winning impression with Egyptians.
That is not to say Washington lacked any options. It didn’t help when Patterson expressed skepticism about the power of the protests. At the same time, all of that fury in Tahrir Square has lacked organization. If opposition groups had melded more effectively during the elections, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood may not have achieved their victory at the ballot box.
Ideally, Morsi would have called new elections (which his party may have won again), or made credible overtures to broaden his base. He may never have taken such steps. The trouble is, the military set and enforced a deadline, and now Egypt has become more complicated, the divisions deepening further as the protests and violent clashes testify, along with the military rounding up and detaining leading members of the Morsi government and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The military pledges an early return to democratic rule. Respected opposition leaders such as Mohammed ElBaradei, a Nobel Prize-winning diplomat, support the ousting of Morsi (though they reject the house arrests). ElBaradei and others see a chance to start over. And what would bring a better result? Egypt would be well served by a strong and compelling third way, a democratic alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. That is something Washington and its partners can encourage, limited though their influence is, the goal to prevent Egypt from getting worse.