The Egyptian military government ignored warnings from the United States and Europe to refrain from violence against Muslim Brotherhood encampments in Cairo and elsewhere this week. Now, more than 700 civilian deaths later, Egypt appears to be on the brink of a civil war.
There are no easy answers to this crisis. But it is easy to see how serious a hazard the ongoing chaos presents to an already-troubled region — and how imperative it is for the United States to use whatever leverage it retains to foster a peaceful resolution.
Egypt has long served as a relative bastion of stability — and a friend to the U.S. Egypt has also served a historic role in its willingness, for the more than three decades since the Camp David accords, to co-exist peacefully with Israel.
But on Friday, an already dangerous situation got even worse as violence intensified.
This, for now, is the tragic outcome of the widely supported military coup that removed the first freely elected president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, after only a year in office in July.
For his part, Mr. Morsi had been taking forceful steps to crush dissent before being deposed. His clear goal was the creation of an oligarchy under control of the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical, anti-secular organization.
And according to an ABC News report on Friday, Mr. Morsi’s “Islamic supporters ... have turned their rage on members of the country’s Coptic Christian minority, attacking churches, monasteries, schools, Christian-owned shops as well as individuals.”
Now Mr. Morsi is in prison. But his followers, who have dominated elections since the 2011 ouster of former authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak after masses of Egyptians protested his rule in the “Arab Spring,” vow to continue their resistance.
The possibility of civil war is alarming news for the security of Israel, navigation of the Suez Canal and reliable access to oil for the world economy.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whose mission to Egypt with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last week failed to broker talks between the military and supporters of Mr. Morsi, fairly warned again this week that the chaos in Egypt would embolden the terrorist group al-Qaida.
President Barack Obama on Thursday called on the interim Egyptian government to suspend the state of emergency it invoked Wednesday. He also announced that the U.S. would not participate in joint military exercises with Egypt scheduled for September.
But President Obama did not threaten to end the roughly $2 billion in annual American aid to Egypt, most of which goes to the military. And the administration has refused to call the military coup that removed Mr. Morsi a coup. Doing so, by U.S. law, would require ending financial aid to Egypt.
Egypt’s military government has put itself, and America’s interests, at heightened risk.
That demands a belated resolve by the administration to underscore its support for democracy in Egypt. That’s not an endorsement for the return of Mr. Morsi, who used the democrtatic process essentially as a route to gain power, which he then exercised more and more autocratically with each passing month in office.
It should mean a pledge for new elections in the near term by Egypt’s military. And it should be accompanied by a resolute assurance that U.S. aid will be conditioned on a timely return to civilian rule.