That's twice Washington was caught slack-jawed amid revolution in the world's biggest Arab-majority state. But don't blame the Obama administration exclusively for twice being on the losing side of events in Egypt. Reality in Egypt has also eluded Beltway Republican foreign policy mavens and America's dysfunctional and distracted intelligence bureaucracies. That makes shaping events in Egypt nearly impossible.
The first shock for Washington came in January 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demanding secular democracy filled town squares. According to Washington and its $80 billion-per-year intelligence bureaucracy, these people did not exist in the Middle East. The choice there was supposedly between corrupt strongmen like Egypt's 30-year president Hosni Mubarak or repressive Islamists like those who run Iran and populate Muslim Brotherhood parties around the region.
Secular liberals were as rare as unicorns and supported by only a small number of Egypt's urbanites -- or so the story went. And yet there they were: mobs of young Egyptians not demanding Islamic law and clerical rule, but accountable government with democratic laws and institutions.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which essentially invented modern Islamism -- the political force seeking unification of mosque and state -- hesitated and kept its supporters on the sidelines in Egypt. Senior Obama administration officials were also stunned along with much of the rest of Washington's byzantine national security apparatus.
Even as it became clear that Mubarak would not survive, Vice President Joe Biden said supportively, "I would not refer to him as a dictator." Of the nation that historically has been the political bellwether of the broader region, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton said, "We're not advocating any specific outcome."
These officials should be afforded some pity. The information and advice they were getting came partially from State Department experts who are perennially wrong about major developments in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the CIA was distracted. Originally created for the crucial tasks of stealing secrets and waging political war on America's foes, the CIA has spent the last decade becoming a second military. With what amounts to a second American air force around the globe and a ground force now focusing on arming Syrian rebels -- inexplicably so for a mission that isn't conceivably covert -- the CIA drifts ever farther from helping policymakers grasp and influence foreign political developments.
And so the first Egyptian revolution came and went. Despite being caught flatfooted before the uprising, surely officials across Washington would be excited at the emergence of a bloc in Egypt that wanted a modern democracy, wouldn't they? Unfortunately, Washington has a way of not allowing new facts to tamper with long-held assumptions. If Egyptian secular liberals did not exist in theory then they couldn't exist in practice.
So when Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham went to Cairo in February 2011, they held high-profile meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood, lending it credibility. According to the Wall Street Journal, Graham remarked, "After talking with the Muslim Brotherhood, I was struck with their commitment to change the law because they believe it's unfair." Later, in April 2012, White House spokesman Jay Carney cited the McCain-Graham engagement with the Brotherhood as justification for the Obama administration's own engagement with the Islamist group.
Of course, Egypt's liberals were not entirely on top of their game in eliciting support from Washington -- whether overt or covert. Their delegation that made the rounds on Capitol Hill stressed retribution over problem-solving and coalition-building. At one point, reformers told Hill staffers they wanted to put members of Egypt's military on trial for their lives for past involvement in Egypt's governance. This self-indulgent and unwise attitude toward the most prominent institution in Egypt that could keep the Islamists at bay did not endear the secularists to Congress. As crucial elections arrived in mid-2012, the secularists appeared as disorganized as ever. The only surprise was how narrow their loss was in the presidential contest; the Islamists won by only 52 percent to 48 percent.
But official Washington should have known the secularists needed help -- and deserved it even if they weren't quite sure how to ask for it. Secular liberals will always, by definition, start off more disorganized than their authoritarian opponents. For example, organization and discipline were key traits of being an active member in a communist party in the last century. The same holds true of adherents for today's totalitarian alternative to democracy: Islamism. Islamist groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hezbollah to al Qaeda are nothing if not disciplined.
Ultimately, liberals do get organized, but it often takes time. After 1944, Poland was under the communist boot for more than three decades before on-again, off-again disobedience and dissent grew into the more organized Solidarity movement. Even then, Poles did not win their freedom for another decade. Georgia and Ukraine broke free from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, but they would not have true democracy until liberal oppositions toppled corrupt, authoritarian governments in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
There are ways to shorten these transitions. The CIA used to support pro-freedom political forces in the Cold War, and those actions helped secular democracy prevail in countries like Italy and Greece. In the 1980s, Washington created the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to pick up this mantle and help foreign democratic forces organize and prevail politically.
Unfortunately, doing this today is light years from where the CIA is or wants to be. Furthermore, the world's bad guys are now wise to NED's intentions; Egypt expelled the employees of one of its subsidiaries. NED also has a leader, Carl Gershman, who seems to believe that Islamist parties can be coaxed into supporting liberal democracy by including them in the process -- the same theory posited by other Washington bigwigs from Obama to McCain, which has now been clearly refuted by events.
Enter Egypt's second revolution. Is it any wonder that the Obama administration has chosen to remain reticent about the matter? Egypt's Islamist president is gone, but his supporters still exist and their secular opponents don't yet appear to be more organized. Worse still, the will for America and its allies to help them organize, and the tools to do that with, both appear to be in mothballs. So once again the most titanic political contest of our era takes a dramatic turn -- one that will have an impact in every Muslim-majority nation and beyond, but with America largely on the sidelines. Washington will again leave crucial matters to chance.