THE DEBATE over Syria has obscured another critical decision about Middle East policy that President Obama and Congress must soon make: whether to sustain aid to the military-backed government that has been consolidating power in Egypt. An administration policy review was nearing completion when the chemical weapons attack near Damascus was detected; as we understand it, the options include a substantial cut in the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid provided to the Egyptian armed forces. The White House tells us that Mr. Obama “has not made a decision to suspend or terminate our assistance to Egypt beyond what the administration has already announced”: delays in the delivery of F-16 fighters and other weapons and the cancellation of a planned exercise.
It’s understandable if the president’s hand has been stayed by the new crisis; nonetheless, it is important that Mr. Obama act soon. While Washington has been fixed on Syria, the Egyptian regime of Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has moved steadily toward constructing an autocracy that would reverse Egypt’s 2011 revolution and its subsequent move toward democracy.
In the past week alone, the Sissi regime has stepped up its arrests and prosecution of leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected president ousted in a July 3 coup. Dozens have already been tried and sentenced in military courts under a state-of-emergency law that was the underpinning of the former autocracy of Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Morsi himself has been charged with murder. Meanwhile, authorities are taking steps toward formally banning the Muslim Brotherhood, excluding parties with a religious identity from the political system and returning to the Mubarak-era system for electing parliamentary representatives, which was weighted against opposition parties. All that would make the elections the regime is promising next year a sham.
In some respects, Egypt already is less free than it was during the last years of Mubarak. Authorities have shut down three satellite television networks considered sympathetic to the Islamists, as well as the Egyptian affiliate of al-Jazeera. A once-diverse press has swung into line behind the government, parroting its far-fetched claims about opponents ranging from the Brotherhood to outgoing U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson. Last week the government-owned Al-Ahram newspaper accused Ms. Patterson of conspiring with a Brotherhood leader to “spread chaos” in Egypt by smuggling in militants from the neighboring Gaza Strip; Ms. Patterson rightly described the article as “absurd and dangerous.”
The Obama administration has been pressing the government to reconcile with the Islamists, release Mr. Morsi and other political prisoners and carry out a transition to a genuine democracy. That these appeals are ignored while the government indulges in grotesque anti-American propaganda reflects the generals’ conviction that the administration will ultimately tolerate a new dictatorship while maintaining U.S. aid. It follows that the only means to exert U.S. leverage is to suspend the aid programs, while linking their resumption to the restoration of democracy. Not just Syria but Egypt requires a “shot across the bow”; Mr. Obama should take it before it is too late.