Another option in Egypt: Do nothing

The United States does not have the do-nothing option, because it has a colossal military aid programme in the country, which must either continue or not continue. The administration is caught in a typically legalistic tangle, because there is a law against aid to governments installed by military coup, so they have had to avoid calling it one and have hedged by withholding some hardware and cancelling some joint military exercises. Steps like that may or may not solve problems in Washington, but they certainly won’t help in Cairo. I would question what US interest (other than that of arms manufacturers) has been served by the military programme, or by the even larger programme of military aid to Israel which it was designed to balance…

Meanwhile, inevitably at a slower tempo, Britain should be mobilising its allies and others, particularly through the EU and the UN. The EU foreign policy representative Catherine Ashton has been commendably active: making two well-publicised visits to Cairo in two weeks, visiting the deposed President Morsi and calling for “utmost restraint” from the security forces and a political process to return to full democracy. The UN security council also called for “maximum restraint” after an emergency meeting. This is not just diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake: the EU is a heavyweight; and all the permanent security council members, including Russia and China, have some common interest in avoiding another Middle East catastrophe, and can play a useful or a harmful role.

The “do nothing” option allows for diplomatic action of this kind. What Britain should avoid is being bounced by events into intervention in Egypt, even of a modest political nature, unless it is absolutely clear about the objectives and, above all, the exit strategy. I’ve seen it before. Thirty years ago Britain was pressed hard by the US to reward Egypt for implementing peace with Israel by offering military credits so the Egyptian army could buy fancy hardware. After much sucking of teeth it declined (it couldn’t afford it). In less than two years the US was supporting Egyptian pleas to “forgive” the debts. Others – including, if I remember correctly, the French – lost their stake. Britain didn’t, because it had not put any money on the table.