Egypt is facing “war by the forces of extremism” and will confront it with “security measures within the framework of law,” Mostafa Hegazy, adviser to Egypt’s interim president said.

Hundreds of people have been killed in political violence this week in clashes between security forces and the Muslim Brotherhood.

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When I went to the Al-Nada camp earlier this week, one of the occupiers delivered this summary message in Arabic, “Anti-coup; restore Morsy; down with Christians.” Not surprisingly for the media savvy Muslim Brotherhood, the huge banners in English above the entrance to the camp proclaimed the first two items, but not the third…

This steady drumbeat of media attacks on both the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood camps and on anyone who questions their eradication has produced a climate of dehumanization, reflected in the widespread acceptance of the military regime’s violent attack.

In a shrewd move, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s military ruler, called citizens into the street weeks ago to support his fight against “potential terrorism.” Hundreds of thousands or people, including revolutionaries and liberals, heeded his call, making Tahrir square — bizarrely — the locus of an anti-Morsy, pro-military love fest. The outpouring of support insulated Sisi from domestic criticism of the brutal crackdown that followed.

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In a vibrant shopping district in central Cairo, people heap praise on Egypt’s military. The military that overthrew Morsi after millions took to the streets to demand his ouster. The military that appointed this new government. And the cabinet that ordered a crackdown so brutal that there were too many bodies for the state to process in a timely manner…

On state television anchors read out the news. A constant tag in the corner is written in English: “EGYPT FIGHTING TERORRISM.”…

“We will not necessarily see a civil war, but what we’re seeing right now is probably a state of social aggression that the Islamic movement has never known before in Egypt,” [analyst Ziad Aki] says…

Armed vigilantes are roaming neighborhoods and clashing with Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Some among the pro-Brotherhood protesters are also armed.

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“It’s very troubling,” said Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 movement which helped to ignite the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising fuelled by anger at police brutality. “They are trying to present the police as angels.”…

While fear of the police appeared to have been smashed by the 2011 uprising, rights activists say there has been no real reform of the institution since Mubarak’s day. Both the army-led government that replaced him and the Mursi administration were faulted for failing to enact any reforms.

Allegations of police torture and excessive use of force have not eased, and fears are now growing that the force has a new license to crack down on political opponents…

“Mubarak’s days were the best, there was security then. It’s good that now there’s more police in the street,” said Faten Kafrawi, 37, speaking at her tea stall in Tahrir Square.

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Via Gallup:

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“There is a real possibility of civil war,” said one senior U.S. official briefed on the intelligence. “There is a dangerous possibility Egypt goes the way of Syria.”…

U.S. officials and regional diplomats say the nightmare scenario would be a civil war in Egypt that creates a crescent-shaped arc of instability from Syria and Lebanon to Iraq, Egypt and Libya. Israeli officials have told their American counterparts that, if Egypt succumbs to violence, an already fragile Jordan could be next, jeopardizing the Jewish state’s last stable border and its buffer zone with Iran.

While U.S. intelligence officials don’t expect the Muslim Brotherhood to mount an organized insurgency in Egypt, radicals within the group could go underground and launch attacks. Some radical Islamists in Egypt who fought in Iraq during the U.S. occupation have returned home, where they could wreak havoc, officials say.

Moreover, a stockpile of arms lies in neighboring Libya, a country in which the security situation is spiraling downward in similar fashion. That impedes the ability of the Libyan government to lock down the arsenal accumulated by the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

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There is only one way forward in Egypt today. The legitimate government must be restored. Only then can we hold talks for a national reconciliation with every option on the table.

The reinstatement of Mr. Morsi is not about ideology or ego. It is not political grandstanding. It is not a negotiating tactic. It is a pragmatic necessity.

Without this crucial step, without accountability for those responsible for the bloodshed and chaos facing Egypt today, none of the promises of inclusion, democracy, liberty or life can be guaranteed.

What the United States ultimately decides to do with its diplomatic relations or foreign aid is President Obama’s decision. But Americans need to recognize that every passing day solidifies the perception among Egyptians that American rhetoric on democracy is empty; that American politicians won’t hesitate to flout their own laws or subvert their declared values for short-term political gains; and that when it comes to freedom, justice and human dignity, Muslims need not apply.

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There is no democracy in Egypt, and never has been, and never will be until there are institutions to put it in place and people to ensure their proper working. No such institutions exist, and potential democrats are found, if at all, in a few think-tanks or Western universities. Identical in their pursuit of power, the army and the Muslim Brothers differ only in why they want power and what they will do with it. Elections, constitutions, law courts, are instruments of control disconnected from popular consent.

General Sisi and the Muslim Brothers are equally able to muster enough numbers for the test of strength that will give victory to one or the other. That’s how these politics were done when the military put down the Islamists in Algeria. That’s how it’s being done now in Syria and shows signs of happening in Iraq and Lebanon. Power-sharing is inconceivable, mere wishful thinking, in the circumstances. It is time for fear and pity.

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Pace the secretary of state, Egypt has never had a democracy, so there is no “restoring” it. Pragmatically speaking, the country has two alternatives: (a) a rapid resort to popular elections, which are certain, once again, to empower Islamic supremacists (who have proved, in election after election, that they appeal to a significant majority of the populace); or (b) military rule through an appointed technocratic government. The former would crush any hope for real democracy. The latter, at least potentially, could force a new consensus constitution that requires equality under the law and respect for minority rights; that delays popular elections until secular democrats are better positioned to compete with Islamic supremacists; and that requires convincing acceptance of the new constitution and renunciation of violence as a precondition to participation in elections.

It might take a number of years, and the Egyptian military — like Turkey’s Kemalist army before it was gutted by Erdogan — would have to make clear its determination to uphold minority rights. But if we really care about promoting democracy, the coup against Morsi is Egypt’s only hope. Rule by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies leads to tyranny; the army’s removal of the Brotherhood government is a chance — and only a chance — for Egypt to stabilize, recover, and eventually prosper. It is a shame that there is any doubt about what side America is on.

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All of the efforts of the United States government, all the cajoling, the veiled threats, the high-level envoys from Washington and the 17 personal phone calls by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, all of it failed to forestall the worst political bloodletting in modern Egyptian history. The generals in Cairo felt free to stiff the Americans first on the prisoner release and then on the statement in a cold-eyed calculation that they would not pay a significant cost — a conclusion bolstered when President Obama responded by canceling a joint military exercise but not $1.5 billion in aid.

For Mr. Obama, the violent crackdown has left him in a no-win position: risk a partnership that has been the bedrock of Middle East peace for 35 years, or stand by while longtime allies try to hold on to power by mowing down opponents. From one side, he has been lobbied by the Israelis, Saudis and other Arab allies to go easy on the generals in the interest of thwarting what they see as the larger and more insidious Islamist threat. From the other, he has been urged by an unusual mix of conservatives and liberals to stand more forcefully against the sort of autocracy that has been a staple of Egyptian life for decades…

Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham arrived in Cairo amid increasing tensions. They went first to see Ambassador Anne Patterson. “You could see it on her face, that nobody’s listening,” Mr. Graham said…

“The million-dollar question now,” said one American military officer, “is where is the threshold of violence for cutting ties?”

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Meanwhile, the Egyptian military has good reason to believe it can defy the Obama administration’s wishes with little to no consequences. After they deposed Morsi, the State Department declared they would not make a judgment as to whether it was a coup, allowing the U.S. government to avoid triggering a law that would have mandated a cutoff of military aid.

“That taught the Egyptian military that we need them more than they need us and that we will not even enforce our own law,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush focusing on Middle East issues…

“We allegedly have influence but we never used the lever of the influence; so as a result we don’t have any,” Cook said…

“Leverage is like your muscles,” Katulis said. “If you don’t exercise them every once in a while, you lose them.”

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The post-coup government in Egypt did not have to endure much real pressure from the international community, and in fact got some positive support in the form of big loans from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly stating that the military government was “restoring democracy.” One could certainly argue that refusing to call the coup a coup was a form of implicit support, deliberate or not. And then, what do you know, the post-coup government appears to be moving toward autocracy rather than democracy.

The U.S. decision on whether or not to call what happened in Egypt a “coup” was far from the only factor determining how the Egyptian military would behave over the past month. In fact, it probably wasn’t even in the top 10 most important factors; the generals care a lot more about what’s happening domestically. Still, it is a factor, and you have to wonder how things might have played out differently had the U.S. decided to use the “do we call it a coup” decision to assert some outward pressure on the post-coup government.

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Beijing may enter the lists yet. There’s an almost palpable power vacuum in the Middle East with Washington out to lunch. Time headlines “Egypt’s Nightmare Scenario Draws Nearer,” and illustrates the story with President Barack Obama making a statement on the situation in Egypt … from the driveway of his vacation house in Martha’s Vineyard.

Obama has become a spectator of his own presidency

All the demands that America “do something in Egypt” are really preconditioned on one unstated assumption: that Washington itself knows what to do. That used to be a reasonable assumption; it is not any more.

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Egypt’s military’s crackdown has made Obama look powerless on the international stage, and raised criticism of his Middle East policy…

“People on different sides – whether it’s Arab governments or opposition groups – don’t take the U.S. seriously,” said Shadi Hamid, the director of research for the Brookings Doha Center who has lived in the region for the past four years and was in Egypt this week. “There is a widespread perception that Obama is a weak, feckless leader. That’s not just Republican talking points – it’s what people here in the region actually think and say on a regular basis.”

Hamid said there’s an “emerging consensus that Obama has gotten the Middle East wrong” because he’s convinced the United States only has limited power to shape events in the region. As a result, Hamid told The Hill, Obama missed a chance to embrace the Arab Spring by strongly opposing Bahrain’s crackdown on protesters, intervening early on in Syria’s uprising against Bashar Assad and labeling Morsi’s ouster a coup.

“It sends a very dangerous message if the U.S. is not even willing to respect its own law on matters of national security,” Hamid said. “The fact that we can’t call things what they are makes us a laughing-stock in the region. That’s why people don’t care about what Obama says and his rhetoric.”

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Obama looks like a president in full flight from a world that looks nothing like what he imagined when he took office. The president saw himself soothing U.S. relations with Muslim nations while gently extracting U.S. troops from Iraq and focusing his energy on other regions and issues: Asia; nuclear arms control; Israeli-Palestinian peace. What he got was an epochal upheaval in the very place from which he had hoped to disengage…

The Arab revolutions demand bold initiatives from the United States and any other outside power seeking to influence their outcome. Airstrikes to break the Syrian military would have been one; a cutoff of military aid to Egypt would have been another. But in foreign policy, Obama is a president of half-measures, of endless internal debates followed by split-the-difference presidential decisions that serve no one’s strategy. Instead of an intervention in Syria that might make a difference, token shipments of arms are being sent to the rebels; instead of a decisive break with Egypt’s out-of-control generals, a pointless exercise is called off…

Obama may have meant to retire the doctrine of the United States as the world’s “indispensible nation.” Instead, the disastrous results of his persistent passivity may lead to its revival.

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But this returns us to the question of how much influence the United States could have, regardless of our continued largesse and tolerance. It’s a big question that some political scientist should research: Do the accoutrements of a military alliance—all the money and aid and networking—buy influence for a large power? Do the old techniques of (let’s not mince words) bribery still work in an era when the global system has fractured and smaller powers have lots of options? We’ve devoted hundreds of billions of dollars to the survival of Nouri al-Maliki’s regime in Iraq and Hamid Karzai’s in Afghanistan. But that hasn’t kept them from spitting in our eye when it’s in their perceived interests to do so.

During the Cold War, Sadat abided by U.S. interests as a necessity. He needed aid and comfort from one of the two superpowers, and he’d just deserted the other’s camp for ours. Now, the Egyptian generals don’t have to kowtow; they can pursue their own interests, and go their own way when their interests conflict with ours. This is the case, despite all the years that they spent at American war colleges, learning American war doctrine and consorting with American generals. It’s the case, despite the pleas for restraint from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the daily phone calls to the same effect from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

It may well be that our influence—or lack thereof—will be the same, regardless of whether we keep aiding the Egyptian military. If it’s unclear what course of action will best serve U.S. interests, maybe that leaves a clear path to pursue U.S. values instead.

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