That would seem to be the one thing that everyone agrees, that what happens in Egypt does matter--to them, and to the rest of us. Egypt is the most populous Arab state, and historically a pivotal one; its role in the recent political movement toward replacing dictatorships in the region, the Arab Spring, is pre-eminent. It is extremely important to Israel that the peace with Egypt established in the 1970's remain in place, and Egypt's role would be central in helping to guarantee any kind of Israeli-Palestinian peace (now that negotiations have begun again).
The way I see it, there has been a triangle of power relationships since deposed dictator Mubarak's crisis in the Arab Spring two years ago. There is the military, there is the Muslim Brotherhood, and there is People Power--the fractionalized, disorganized mass of civil society not working with the military or M.B.
Two of those groups were well-organized and prepared to act as the smoke cleared from the chaos surrounding Mubarak's fall: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. They found a way to cooperate, or at least tolerate working with each other, to conduct elections for a Constituent Assembly and for the Presidency. Mohammed Morsi was not a choice the military liked, but they accepted it. There are parties, political forces, among the third force--in fact, too many--but not much evidence of ability to act with a single purpose on a consistent basis, and that allowed Morsi to win the Presidency over a candidate who represented the military's interests.
Morsi, though, upset the power-sharing arrangement through overreach. The third force rose up, and the military switched over. The coup--and it was most assuredly a coup--was somewhat accepted by the masses, pending new arrangements.
The Muslim Brotherhood refused to accept the revised power alignment and insisted on Morsi's release (he has been arrested, pending charges) and reinstatement. After some weeks of mobilizing its members in massive demonstrations, the military made a decision, reminiscent of the Chinese in the days of Tienanmen Square, that the insubordinate behavior should not be allowed to continue.
In fairness, some of the demonstrators have been armed and violent, and some of the demonstrations threatened government installations, but the military's overreaction in the past few days has been spectacular. It seems that the military made a calculation: we have driven them underground before (for much of Mubarak's reign), we can do it again. In this, though, I think they have made a miscalculation--conditions have changed.
The views of the third force, as usual, lack clarity: I hear a call for new elections, but it is unclear the results would be much different (the Brotherhood may only have 30-40% support among Egyptian adults, but its unity can allow it to defeat a fractured opposition). Not many, if any, call for reinstating Morsi, and that would seem to be out of the question at this point for the military.
The military's statements now suggest that they would like to lower tensions. I think they will have to back away from threats to prosecute Morsi for allowing civil disorder. Making a martyr of him by imprisoning or executing him would be a disastrous move. I would see the most favorable outcome being some sort of promise that he would be released if the Brotherhood accepts the coup's outcome and agrees to some sort of new elections with a new power alignment. I don't know that they will accept that, though; this is a group that has a maximalist, long-term agenda, and they will find it difficult to back down.
Our Many Ineffectual Options
There was a lot of internal debate in the US policy-making community (inside and outside of the government) after the latest massacre of civilians by the military, which occurred when they decided to stop tolerating daily demonstrations for Morsi and occupation of a major Cairo mosque by the M.B. Over a hundred were killed, and many more injured.
The initial response from the Obama Administration was the classic "strongly worded message". The obvious leverage we had was the $billion-plus foreign aid we have given to Egypt every year since the Camp David accords. In fact, our law requires that the aid be cut off in the case of a military coup. The problem with that step (either suspending, or cancelling it) is that it might not make any difference in the military's behavior--it might make it worse--and then the leverage, such as it was, would be gone. That was the problem with the aid during the Mubarak reign, and it has surfaced again. Beyond that, our ally Israel (which feels a lot more comfortable with the military than it did with Morsi) would like us to keep the aid, and then there are the US arms manufacturers, who end up getting back a lot of the money in arms spending.
Finally, this week the US has announced it is suspending aid. I think this is the right move; it can be reinstated if there are positive political developments. I have to say I really don't care about any screams and moans from the US defense contractors. They've been profiting for too long from the indirect largesse of our taxpayers, and if jobs are at stake, then this is a very good example of the kind of non-productive employment which will be eliminated, and should be eliminated, over time (there are ever less countries willing to engage in the arms purchase game). Meanwhile, we should be looking at political aid to the third force, in the form of money to organize those forces . If there's one area of great progress that Obama's movement has produced, it is the demonstrated ability to translate money into political power.
And Then There's Syria
Wednesday morning, rocket attacks on suburbs under rebel control near Damascus killed hundreds of civilians. Many reported that victims appeared to have symptoms like those associated with sarin gas. Everyone has put together 2+2 and concluded that Syria's government forces have conducted a chemical weapons attack; there have been such allegations before, even proven cases of sarin gas being used, but this was on a larger scale, and the signs of authorship are not ambiguous. It seems like an arrogant and outrageous violation of international law.
Nevertheless, it is unclear what the response of the international community, and of the US, will end up to be. In the U.N., Russia has cooperated only to the point of agreeing that there should be an investigation of the incident. Syria has offered cooperation, then pulled back, then offered again--reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's gamesmanship on a similar topic back in the day: it's called stalling for time. Evidence of chemical weapons would tend to fade, and victims will be buried quickly, in accordance with Muslim requirements. I am certain the Syrian regime will have developed some sort of alternate interpretation of the incident which would seek to distract or diffuse blame away from themselves.
The tricks will be figuring out how to act in spite of these obstacles, and what exactly to do. NATO could be one means of rallying support, as I imagine countries like the U.K., France, and Turkey will be supportive of taking action. Again, though, what type of action would be effective? Personally, I would advocate the following sequence: 1) Establish a no-fly zone for military flights over Damascus; 2) Keep an eye on the Presidential palace and the other haunts of President Bashar al-Assad; and 3) Put a cruise missile through his office window when he's in there. Nothing else would be sufficient, and I think that would do the trick in ensuring no one else orders the use of such weapons in the civil war, which is certain to continue regardless of anything else that happens.