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Cut off aid to Egypt till elections held

By Tamara Cofman Wittes, Special to CNN
July 6, 2013 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
A bus passes a destroyed pickup truck with loudspeakers that was used by supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy on Friday, August 2. The supporters and security forces clashed in Sixth of October City in Giza, south of Cairo, after the government ordered their protest camps be broken up. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/15/middleeast/gallery/egypt-violence-august/index.html' target='_blank'>Look at the latest violence in Egypt.</a> A bus passes a destroyed pickup truck with loudspeakers that was used by supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy on Friday, August 2. The supporters and security forces clashed in Sixth of October City in Giza, south of Cairo, after the government ordered their protest camps be broken up. Look at the latest violence in Egypt.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tamara Cofman Wittes: U.S. must nudge Egypt back on path toward democracy
  • Wittes: Morsy's uncompromising approach was big sign that trouble was brewing
  • Wittes: Islamist party candidates have a right to run in elections
  • She urges the U.S. to cut off aid to Egypt as incentive to hold new democratic elections

Editor's note: Tamara Cofman Wittes is senior fellow and director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution. Follow her on Twitter: @tcwittes

(CNN) -- The ouster of Mohamed Morsy as Egypt's president is unlikely to end the country's political turmoil. As a result, the United States -- which has great stakes in Egypt's stability -- must use its limited leverage to nudge Egypt back onto a democratic trajectory.

The lesson of Egypt's 2011 revolution was that lasting stability demands an inclusive government that is accountable to Egypt's people and responsive to their demands for dignity and freedom. But Morsy and his Muslim Brotherhood apparently didn't get the memo.

Many Egyptians were already skeptical of the Brotherhood -- but Morsy's "my way or the highway" approach to elections, the constitution, and other key issues, and his readiness to wield the old regime's repressive laws against his critics, alienated many more. For Washington, these moves should have raised alarm bells that Egypt was not on the track to stable democracy -- but the administration was slow to act as the political clouds gathered.

Tamara Cofman Wittes
Tamara Cofman Wittes

As the largest Arab state and key regional anchor, a stable Egypt is crucial, especially for a United States that wants to turn its attention elsewhere in the globe. But Washington must press to ensure that Egypt's next leaders don't repeat Morsy's mistakes.

The Muslim Brotherhood did well in elections partly because it captured years of pent-up protest votes -- but there is also a significant segment of the public who feel that the Brotherhood best represents them politically. They, too, have the right to form parties and support candidates that reflect their beliefs. Any attempt to ban Islamist parties, or to forcibly secularize the public sphere, will alienate not only Brotherhood members but all those Egyptians who tell pollsters that they believe politics should reflect the influence of Islam.

Egyptian military takes CNN camera
Clashes in Egypt turn deadly
Violence in streets of Cairo after coup

The Brotherhood also has choices to make that could determine whether Egypt moves toward greater stability or toward civil strife. If the Brotherhood chooses to resist violently, the state has the capability to crush their efforts -- but the price will be heavy. Vulnerable Egyptians, including the country's religious minorities, are likely to be the greatest losers.

Even more troubling, deeply conservative Salafi movements only recently took the leap into formal politics -- but skeptically. Some of these groups have violent pasts. Now that democracy's been overridden in the name of defending "freedom," will they see a reason to stay in the political game? If followed by undue repression, this coup could drive the creation of a new generation of Islamist terrorists in Egypt. Egyptians have suffered enough from terrorism already.

Even if this military action to depose the elected president was a response to popular demand, that doesn't mean it wasn't a coup. It's certainly possible for a military coup to advance democratic development -- but it's rare, and the bar is pretty high.

The decisions announced by General Abdul Fatah el-Sisi place state authority back in the hands of three strong instruments of the old Mubarak regime: the army, the Interior Ministry and the judiciary. The Obama administration must use its influence with the Egyptian military to press for clear evidence that the new transitional authority will govern in a transparent, restrained manner, and move the country swiftly back to democratic rule. That should begin with a clear and swift timeline for a return to democratic rule.

The United States has a law on the books that demands an immediate cutoff of aid in the event of a military coup. The U.S. has sent an average of $2 billion a year in aid to Egypt since 1979.

The U.S. law is designed to give coup-established governments a strong incentive to return their countries to democratic rule -- aid can resume as soon as new democratic elections are held. The African Union, which has strengthened its democratic norms in recent years, has already suspended Egypt's membership because of the military's intervention into democratic politics. The U.S. law should be invoked in the Egyptian case, and used to hold the Egyptian military accountable for swift progress on their transition road map.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tamara Cofman Wittes.

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