The events in Egypt – a military coup against an elected government, carried out with the approval of a large segment of the population, followed by deadly reprisals – present the U.S. with a complicated situation. The policy response, however, should be clear: U.S. support for a democratic transition matched by policies and diplomacy to achieve that outcome. The U.S. has not followed such an approach since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but it should do so now.
The first step must be to implement U.S. law on foreign assistance in the wake of a coup. Under U.S. law, most assistance must be cut off whenever "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." Support for the coup by ordinary Egyptians, leading religious figures and secular politicians neither transforms the military's action nor justifies it.
If, as President Obama said in his July 3 statement, the U.S. is committed to the democratic process and the rule of law, Washington itself must be seen to be adhering to its laws and democratic principles. However, the White House appears hesitant, so far, to make an official determination that Morsi's ouster occurred through a military coup or decree.
Some U.S. policymakers and experts will argue that the continuation of aid – the vast majority of which goes to Egypt's military – maintains U.S. influence or "leverage." How, then, to explain last week's coup, which went ahead despite reported U.S. efforts to avert it?
Others will argue that the Egyptian military's substantial position in the nation's economy and largesse from other countries would insulate it from the economic impact of a cutoff. Let's see. In any case, the political message of a U.S. cutoff would be clear in a way that it never has before. In Egypt, the U.S. has never used its influence to consistently favor democratic principles. Although Congress has conditioned aid on progress on democracy and respect for human rights, U.S. presidential administrations have waived that requirement repeatedly.
Of course, cutting off Egypt's military is not a policy by itself. Washington's agenda in the coming days and weeks must make a priority of human rights and political liberties for all Egyptians and progress toward early elections. The U.S. must also cultivate international support for Egyptian democracy while acting to deter outside actors from pursuing a contrary agenda. As Egypt progresses toward democracy, the United States should prioritize an economic assistance program that benefits ordinary Egyptians. In the latter category, Qatar has not always played a helpful role in Egypt, and its new leadership should be a particular target of American diplomacy.
The events of last week made a democratic transition in Egypt more elusive, but no less important. In this precarious period, Washington may be tempted return to more familiar objectives by focusing narrowly on Egypt as a partner for counterterrorism and its "cold peace" with Israel. President Morsi's dreadful record will reinforce a view of Islam as being incompatible with democracy. The penchant of some secular politicians for conspiracy theories and even anti-Semitism will make them unattractive allies.
While working for short-term progress, Washington should take the long view – that democratic rule in Egypt benefits Egyptians, and the coup there, if left unchallenged, will undermine not only democratic progress in other Arab countries, but also America's influence throughout the world. To do this, Washington will have to overcome skepticism about its sincerity and motives that have built up over many years. Hard as that may be to do, there is no other way forward.
Ellen Bork is Director of Democracy and Human Rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) in Washington, D.C. FPI's website is www.foreignpolicyi.org.