Obama’s Egypt Test: Just What Is ‘Democracy,’ Anyway?

A decision on U.S. aid to Cairo gets complicated

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Steve Crisp / REUTERS

A view shows a flyby over protesters against ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir Square in Cairo on July 4, 2013

Barack Obama paid his first and still only visit to Egypt in the late spring of 2009. As a new President looking to turn the page on the George W. Bush era, he traveled to Cairo to deliver an address meant to repair America’s relationship with the Muslim world. One subject he covered in the June 1 speech at Cairo University was America’s controversial promotion of democracy in the region. While no country should impose its values on another, Obama said — an implicit acknowledgment that the Iraq war had been viewed that way — he pledged to strongly support existing democratic governments.

But Obama was also careful to note that democracy is about more than casting votes: “We will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people,” Obama explained. “Elections alone do not make true democracy.”

Four years later, those words have a prescient ring. American officials are using almost the same language as they explain their response to the military intervention — the White House is avoiding the word coup — that toppled Egypt’s first legitimately elected President, Mohamed Morsi. And not for the first time, Obama and his aides are weighing a painful decision point handed to them by the Arab Spring.

(MORE: With Egypt in Crisis, Is Obama Playing It Too Safe?)

Thus far, the official Obama line toward Egypt holds that the U.S. supports no particular candidate or party, simply the democratic process itself. But to critics who say Obama has turned a blind eye to a coup, Administration officials invoke language that echoes his 2009 speech, delivered back when Hosni Mubarak still ran the country and showed little sign of weakness. “A democratic process is not just about casting your ballot,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

Parsing the meaning of democracy provides the Administration with rhetorical cover for its reluctance to declare the military’s ouster of Morsi a “coup.” Doing so would legally require an immediate cutoff of America’s $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt, an act urged by some senior members of Congress. But at a Monday National Security Council meeting, officials decided to defer a decision on that question for now, according to one Administration source.

Declaring a coup would have practical consequences that Obama prefers to avoid. America’s aid, most of which goes to the secular, U.S.-friendly army, guarantees access and influence in the Arab world’s most populous country. But the word also carries a larger symbolic meaning, as a signal of whose side Obama is really on. And forced to choose, the White House does not want to line up with Morsi, an Islamist whose popularity has plunged since he was elected a year ago. “Tens of millions of Egyptians have legitimate grievances with President Morsi’s undemocratic form of governance and … do not believe this was a coup,” White House press secretary Jay Carney explained on Monday. “Indeed, they were demanding a new government.”

A certain inconsistency about liberal values shouldn’t shock anyone who’s followed Obama’s response to the Arab Spring. The President was slow to embrace Egypt’s anti-Mubarak movement in early 2011. And just two weeks before Mubarak finally stepped down that February, Vice President Joe Biden said the repressive military strongman was not a dictator.

(MORE: Egypt’s Way Forward: New Transition Plan Draws Immediate Fire)

Obama also effectively stood by during a violent crackdown against protesters in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, a U.S. ally that hosts America’s naval Fifth Fleet. Obama’s then chief of staff, William Daley, later explained the raw calculus for the New York Times, noting that the Shi‘ite-led insurrection threatened Bahrain’s oil-rich neighbor, Saudi Arabia. “We realized that the possibility of anything happening in Saudi Arabia was one that couldn’t become a reality,” Daley said. “For the global economy, this couldn’t happen. Yes, it was treated differently from Egypt. It was a different situation.” Just last month, Obama told Bahrain’s crown prince that he’d like to see “meaningful reform” in the country. But a White House spokesperson also told al-Jazeera that Obama “emphasized U.S. support for Bahrain’s stability and security.”

Obama has plenty of reasons to want stability in Egypt too: to preserve Cairo’s peace deal with Israel; to avoid the spiking oil prices that occur whenever the security of the Suez Canal is in doubt; to ensure that Islamic radicals don’t exploit chaos for anti-Western ends. With the world watching closely, Obama officials are trying to restart the democratic process — urging Islamists not to boycott politics and pleading for restraint with a military that recently killed several dozen pro-Morsi protesters — without quite declaring that the army has sabotaged it.

It’s a delicate balance, and one that risks leaving everybody unhappy. “Egyptians are looking to us for guidance and assistance as they make this very difficult transition to democracy,” says one Administration official. Just forgive them if they’re a little confused about what we’ll tolerate and what we won’t along the way. As Obama himself put it in Cairo four years ago describing his vision for free democratic societies: “There is no straight line to this promise.” Nor, apparently, is there one to a happy outcome in Egypt today.

MORE: Was It a Coup? The White House Still Isn’t Saying