It can be hard to sympathize with recently ousted President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt. The massive protests against his rule that filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square in June were fueled largely by Morsi’s repeated, ham-fisted attempts to undermine state institutions since being sworn in last year.
But for all his faults, Morsi was Egypt’s legitimate president. And if the United States is truly committed to supporting democracy with more than just lip service, it can’t turn a blind eye while a freely elected leader is driven from office by an army equipped with U.S.-made weapons and riot gear.
It’s easy to see why Morsi wore thin on so many Egyptians — millions of whom signed a petition to have him removed last month. Newspaper and television reporters critical of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues have been threatened, sued and censored on his watch. He stacked Islamist partisans into key positions in government ministries – including those of education and information — and broke a post-election promise to appoint a woman and a Christian as vice presidents.
But the worst of Morsi’s offenses was his November decree placing Egypt’s constitutional assembly above judicial review and granting Morsi open-ended powers to “protect the revolution.” Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council blasted the decree as an “unprecedented assault on the independence of the judiciary and its rulings,” and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed el Baradei said Morsi had “usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt’s new pharaoh.”
Clearly, Morsi should have taken the hint when protesters filled Tahrir Square with tent cities reminiscent of those that fueled Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011. But unpopular rulers come with the territory of democracy, and ideally, the Egyptians would resolve their crisis internally — without a U.S.-equipped military force being the deciding factor.
“(Morsi) made some catastrophic mistakes, that must be said,” said 26-year-old Mohamed Adel Ismail to al-Jazeera last week. “But my understanding of democracy is you allow him to rule and fail and then vote him out.”
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, in visiting Egypt this week, said “we will not try to impose our model on Egypt,” insisting he wasn’t there “to lecture anyone” or offer “American solutions.”
But to believe Burns is to ignore the billions of dollars Egypt receives in U.S. military aid, which has long been a thumb on the scales of Egyptian politics. President Barack Obama last week ordered the Pentagon to review such aid, and would do well to consider permanently reducing it, because the reins of power in Egypt could change hands quickly and unpredictably in the future.