It’s not hard for outsiders to discern what Egypt’s leaders must do to avoid a looming economic collapse and the even more frightening risk of anarchy. First, they must quickly come to terms with the International Monetary Fund, with which they have been dickering for months over the terms of a $4.8 billion bailout loan. More importantly, Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his secular opposition must cease their attempts to delegitimize and destroy each other and agree on a democratic constitution and new elections.
To their credit, U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have delivered that message in the past week, Obama in a phone call to Morsi and Kerry in a visit to Cairo. But there’s not much evidence that anyone in Egypt is listening.
The trouble starts with the government of Morsi, who was democratically elected last year with the support of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. The president has frequently proclaimed his support for democracy, for peace with Israel and for good relations with the United States. Morsi has repeatedly offered dialogue to the opposition and suggested his willingness to modify the current constitution or set up a new cabinet as a way of compromising. He told Kerry that he hoped to conclude a pact with the IMF in days.
In practice, however, the government often appears to pursue a different course. It has delayed desperately needed stabilization measures, such as an increase in sales taxes. It has moved toward placing oppressive new controls on nongovernmental organizations that would have the effect of eliminating their independence from the government and preventing them from receiving donations from international sources. A prosecutor appointed by Morsi, meanwhile, is pressing criminal cases against critical journalists and entertainers on flimsy charges of insulting the president. Government officials say a more liberal NGO law is in the works and that the president opposes the prosecution of journalists, but those assertions have yet to be proved in practice.
Sadly, many opposition leaders have demonstrated no greater fealty to democratic principles. Having repeatedly lost free and fair elections in the past two years, secular politicians including Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, have adopted a self-defeating boycott strategy. They refuse to attend the political dialogue convened by Morsi; they say they will boycott the parliamentary election now scheduled to begin in April. Several even refused to attend a meeting in Cairo with Kerry. It’s hard to see where this strategy can lead, other than to turning the nascent political system entirely over to the Islamists.
Some in the opposition say they are angry at the United States for backing Morsi; they seem to think the Obama administration should join them in their uncompromising battle with the Islamists. In fact Obama is right to try to work with this legitimately elected leader, while pushing him to compromise with his opponents. But U.S. policy remains muddled: Most of the $1 billion in economic aid Obama promised Egypt after its revolution has been held up, while $1.3 billion in annual military aid continues. It may be that the United States can do nothing to change the course of events in Egypt. But now is the time for Washington to use all the leverage it can muster to press both the government and its opponents toward compromise.