Obama is out of step in Egypt again

After the bloody crackdown on protesters in Egypt on Wednesday, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace laureate who had served as vice president and lent a civilian face to what can now only be described as a military dictatorship, resigned in protest. "It has become difficult for me to continue bearing responsibility for decisions that I do not agree with and whose consequences I fear," he wrote in his resignation letter. "I cannot bear the responsibility for one drop of blood."

If only the leaders of the world's oldest democracy, the one that set the precedent for the supremacy of elected, civilian leaders over the military, could muster that same kind of moral clarity. The best President Barack Obama could muster as the toll of the dead rose into the hundreds and the injured into the thousands in Cairo and elsewhere was to assure the world that he was monitoring the situation from vacation in Martha's Vineyard. A spokesman condemned the violence on Wednesday and said the White House is reviewing its commitment of aid to the Egyptian military. The presdient went a step farther Thursday morning and canceled joint military exercises with Egypt, but he continued to insist that American engagement with the military will help foster democracy, and he still declined to call its takeover a coup.

What, exactly, will it take for the Obama administration to recognize that the generals who ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi have no intention of keeping their promises to return the nation to elected, civilian government? At what point will we, like Mr. ElBaradei, wash our hands of a regime that values its own power so far above human life?

Egypt has long been America's most important ally in the Arab world, and its peace agreement with Israel is the linchpin of security in the region. That is why we have provided billions in aid to the military and have developed strong ties to its officers through joint exercises and training programs. As the nation has descended into chaos in the last few months, and as the military leaders have steadily taken the nation farther away from democracy and respect for human rights, the rationale for maintaining that aid has been that it provides us with some kind of leverage over the generals. If we call the military takeover a coup, we will be required by law to withdraw our $1.3 billion in annual support, and then, the thinking goes, the generals will feel no restraint whatsoever.

But when soldiers are sent to open fire on peaceful demonstrators, when they use armored vehicles and snipers to crush political protests, what influence are we possibly asserting now? At a certain point, strategic considerations pale next to the moral case for cutting ties to the military. If we continue our support after this, we have blood on our hands. The Obama administration must cut off all military aid and cooperation until legitimate civilian rule is restored. The president has been behind the curve at nearly every step during the upheaval in the Middle East that started with the Arab Spring two years ago, and he is in the process of making the same mistake again. Those who seek pluralistic democracy in the Middle East are having enough difficulty without the world's supposed beacon of freedom supporting murderous strongmen.

At the same time, it is once again evident that America's influence over what unfolds in the Middle East is extremely limited. The course of events in Egypt will depend on how the people respond to this military crackdown, and the early signs are not encouraging. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Morsi supporters, who populated the protest encampments the military attacked on Wednesday, have responded with violence of their own, in some cases firebombing Christian churches in retaliation for Coptic leaders' support of Mr. Morsi's ouster. Meanwhile, not all of the nation's liberal leaders have followed Mr. ElBaradei's lead in distancing themselves from the military, saying the crackdowns were necessary to preserve order.

Egypt's liberals and secularists have reason to be angry at the way Mr. Morsi and other Islamists sought to hijack that nation's revolution. But they need to recognize that the path the military has taken leads only to civil war. The military has historically had a deep hold on Egyptian society, but it is time for the people on all sides of the political divide to recognize that it is pursuing its interests, not those of the nation.

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