“The beneficiaries of what happened today are the preachers of violence and terrorism, the most extremist groups, and you will remember what I am telling you.” So said Egypt’s interim vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei in announcing his resignation after Egyptian military forces gunned down hundreds of peaceful protesters on Wednesday.
If history is any guide, ElBaradei’s grim prediction is well founded. In 1991, Algerian authorities cancelled the results of parliamentary elections that Islamic parties were poised to win. Result: a ten-year civil war during which militant Islamic groups, cheated of a democratic victory, went on a rampage of terror that cost between 60,000 and 150,000 lives on both sides. In Egypt, not only was the Muslim Brotherhood robbed of its victory with the ouster and arrest of its legitimately elected President; its peaceful protests have been met with murderous repression by military authorities apparently bent on eliminating the Brotherhood and its Islamic allies.
Yes, Morsi was a lousy President and some elements of the Brotherhood may have nurtured hopes of one day imposing sharia law and turning Egypt into an Islamic Republic. But they were historically committed to nonviolence and, in the wake of Mubarak’s fall from power, embraced the democratic process. You can forget about that now. The brutal repression of the Brotherhood is rallying all the Islamic parties, including the most militant, into a united opposition whose violent reaction could tip Egypt into an Algerian-style civil war.
For the U.S., which annually gives Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid, the risks are enormous, including the loss of its most reliable ally in the Arab world, the possible collapse of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and ever more enmity in the eyes of the Islamic world—if that is possible. Washington's entreaties to act with moderation and seek a negotiated settlement have left the Egyptian generals unmoved, raising pressure on the Obama administration to turn off the aid spigot. President Obama stopped short of that in condemning the bloodbath Thursday, but announced the cancellation of joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises.