In 1979, when I was a sophomore in college, I entered the Sinai desert in Egypt. On a twisted pile of concrete rubble, there was a hand painted message: “Here was the war – Here is the peace.” That year marked the beginning of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord, brokered by the United States. Though the peace could be characterized as a “cold” peace, it has nonetheless held for 34 years.
The Middle East is rife with conflict, sectarian tension and the settling of scores, but the long-held Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement continues to provide a critical element for regional stability.
The U.S. helps maintain it today by supporting both Israel and Egypt. A small contingent of American troops remains in the Sinai Desert. The U.S. and Egypt regularly conduct joint military exercises, and the U.S. has maintained a strong relationship with the Egyptian military.
This makes the current trouble in Egypt all the more complex and messy. Former President Mohammed Morsi, having ascended to power following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, was recently removed from office by the military, after massive protests from the Egyptian people.
This has created a backlash among Morsi’s supporters, who belong to a religious movement called the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many Egyptians were never comfortable with the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is rooted in a history of violence and intolerance, would somehow embrace the ideals of a more democratic society once handed the keys to power.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood has since renounced violence as a central tenant, the Morsi government disregarded the constitution, consolidated power, disrespected minority rights, and pardoned jihadists.
Interestingly, Morsi received his education in the United States.
In the aftermath of his removal, more than 1,000 persons have been killed. In an effort to disperse the Muslim Brotherhood protests after advanced warnings were unheeded, altercations began, and the police, backed up by the military, responded with lethal force.
As a clear act of reprisal, 25 police officers were abducted and killed, and the ancient Christian minority population has been attacked.
Things appear to have calmed for now, and hopefully this ends the spiraling violence.
In the best of circumstances, the issue of providing foreign aid to places like Egypt is touchy with the American people. It’s even more complicated in the current situation.
Last year, given the problematic trajectory of Morsi’s leadership, I quietly wrote then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her to suspend economic aid to Egypt. Even at that time, the goals of the Morsi administration were murky.
Today, we are faced with a new dilemma. While we must not give legitimacy to the unjust use of force against innocent persons - and President Obama’s recent decision to cancel American participation in the upcoming military exercises was the right one - the military is the lone stabilizing institution in the country.
It seems to enjoy broad popularity among the people and possesses the credibility to assure a more stable, inclusive governing structure.
While the latest round of violence is wrong and must cease, an abrupt and permanent withdrawal of all aid to Egypt invites another set of potentially costly consequences.
The delicate task ahead of us is to set the conditions for a rebuilding of our relationship with Egypt - with a view toward an orderly democratic transition.
Jeff Fortenberry represents eastern Nebraska (the 1st congressional district) in the U.S. House of Representatives.