Douglas Aronin, Esq.
The events in Egypt over the course of the past couple of weeks should be of concern to anyone who cares about Israel's well-being. Although Israel's relationship with Egypt has been rocky at times, the Egyptian government has remained committed to the peace treaty between the two countries, and the durability of that treaty has been a cornerstone of Israeli security policy. The now-deposed Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, had reaffirmed that commitment as well, but considering his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, supporters of Israel were skeptical about his sincerity.
I doubt that many Israelis are feeling much ambivalence about Morsi's forced departure. His hostility to Israel was never in doubt, and his supposed commitment to peace with Israel was widely assumed to be merely a show designed to keep American aid flowing. The relationship between the IDF and the Egyptian military, on the other hand, has been a constructive one, and the general who took the lead in effecting Morsi's ouster, Gen. Abdel Fatah Said Al-Sisi , is a known quantity. Israel is surely better off with the army controlling Egypt rather than the Muslim Brotherhood, and Israelis across the political spectrum understand that. No one expects Egypt's army to maintain control of the country for a lengthy period, but its willingness to intervene should make future civilian governments more hesitant to cross any of its red lines -- one of which is the country's commitment to its peace treaty with Israel.
The American reaction to the military intervention in Egypt reflects more ambivalence than the Israeli reaction. That ambivalence does not signify a weakening of America's commitment to Israel's security, nor does it suggest that anyone in Washington was enamored with Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood. But the US necessarily sees episodes like this one from a broader perspective reflecting its national interests. One of those core interests, most Americans believe, is the promotion of democracy around the world.
Historically, to be sure, United States foreign policy has been somewhat less idealistic than most of us would like to believe. Like any major power, we have a multitude of national interests to protect, and we have on occasion subordinated the promotion of democracy to the pursuit of one or another of those interests. The notion of an American mission to promote democracy is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, however, and the American people are usually reluctant to see their country acting in a manner that is inconsistent with that ideal.
It was to further that ideal, presumably, that Congress, beginning in 1986, adopted a statutory provision mandating the suspension of "any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d'etat or decree or ... a coup d'etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role." Unlike many foreign policy-related statutes, this one does not permit a waiver by the President for reasons of national security. It does provide, however, " [t]hat assistance may be resumed to such government if the President determines and certifies ... that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office."
Because the statute gives the President no flexibility in responding to a coup, the White House has thus far refused to label the removal of Morsi a coup. That has brought some criticism, most notably from Senator John McCain. In a statement released shortly after Morsi's overthrow, McCain, though he appeared to be unhappy with the law's inflexibility, said that "it is difficult for me to conclude that what happened was anything other than a coup in which the military played a decisive role. Current U.S. law is very clear about the implications for our foreign assistance in the aftermath of a military coup against an elected government ...."
It's hard to dispute McCain's assertion that Morsi's overthrow is a coup. In insisting otherwise, the Obama administration is playing a word game. That word game, however, is in America's national interest, and the inflexibility written into the statute is not. Virtually no one, including McCain, is arguing that cutting off aid to Egypt at this point would be in the interests of the United States -- or of Israel, for that matter.
Does that mean that the United States shouldn't promote democracy abroad, that it should base its foreign policy on realpolitik without any pretense of principle? In one of his recent op-ed columns, David Brooks the most thoughtful of the Times columnists, appears to be wrestling with that question. He posits that "[t]he debate about Egypt has been between those who emphasize process and those who emphasize substance." The process crowd, according to Brooks, doesn't see beyond the fact that Morsi was "freely elected" while the "substance people" believe that "[w]hen you elect fanatics ... [y]ou have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy. The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup." The "substance people," unlike the process crowd, recognize that "elections are not a good thing when they lead to the elevation of people whose substantive beliefs fall outside the democratic orbit."
The process/substance dichotomy proposed by Brooks is tempting, but misses the mark. It sounds too much like saying that sure, you can have an election, as long as we approve of the winner. And to many ears, especially in developing countries, it sounds like a pretext for renewed colonialism. The principle of majority rule, after all, is not based on the assumption that the majority is always right but rather on the principle that the majority has the right to be wrong.
A better approach, it seems to me, is to recognize that majority rule is one of the foundations of democracy but not the only one. Voting alone does not establish democracy. The old Soviet Union used to vote, after all, as does the present-day Iran. Dictators have frequently used plebiscites to provide a thin veneer of legitimacy to their authoritarian rule.
To be considered a democracy, a country needs more than an electoral system. It needs a free press, an independent judiciary and an enforceable commitment to minority rights and the rule of law. The fatal defect in Morsi's regime was not that the wrong man won the election, but rather that the country lacked the other institutions necessary to place realistic checks on governmental power, thus creating a stable democratic regime. In some countries, where other such checks are lacking, the military is called upon to play that role. It is far from optimal, but it may be better than the available alternatives, as developments in Turkey over the past few years make clear.
When does the democratic instability within a nominally democratic country justify intervention by that country's armed forces? There's no simple answer to that question, which will depend on a hard-headed analysis of specific circumstances. To the extent that the United States has leverage -- and in the case of Egypt, our substantial foreign assistance gives us considerable leverage -- we should use it not to mindlessly endorse election victors but to encourage the development of stable democratic institutions. That seems to be what the Obama administration is trying to do in Egypt. It's a shame that inflexible statutory language adds to the difficulty of that task.