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US neutrality towards Egypt is not an option

The US administration aimed to stay neutral over post-June 2013 developments in Egypt, but it ultimately failed

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Wednesday 5 Nov 2014
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The hysterical reaction that continues to come from some Egyptian elites to op-eds in the New York Times and Washington Post about Egypt reflects double ignorance of two important issues. First, the nature of the US official position, represented by the White House regarding developments in Egypt since 30 June 2013. Second, the position of US media about these same developments.

At the end of May 2013, Barack Obama’s administration aimed to remain neutral about quickly developing events in Egypt, ultimately failing to do so. Both feuding sides, the Muslim Brotherhood and interim government accused Washington of supporting the other side. Obama’s address to the UN General Assembly in 2013 was clear when he noted: “Of course, America has been attacked by all sides of this internal conflict, simultaneously accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and engineering the removal of power. In fact, the United States has purposely avoided choosing sides.” So why was Washington facing blame from both sides when it explicitly expressed its neutrality? A quick glance at Washington’s positions confirms that Obama’s administration reacted and eventually accepted the outcome of domestic developments in Egypt as it was unable to control them.

After the army deposed former president Mohamed Morsi, the US formed its position with several factors in mind, most notably not labelling what occurred in Egypt as a coup because that would automatically mean all aid must be suspended. Suspending aid is a measure in accordance with a 1961 act passed by the US Congress that bans assistance to any country where the army intervenes through a coup against a civilian elected president. Second to the US position was the importance of not allowing the army to unilaterally rule in the interim phase, and the need to have popular and credible civil political figures involved in the process to make it easier for Washington not to label the events as a “coup.” Third, was not taking any repressive measures against key Brotherhood leaders and other Islamist figures. Finally was putting pressure on the Brotherhood to be part of the new political process. The interim government ignored all of these factors and US response was feeble if only temporarily until 14 August 2013.

On 14 August, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel telephoned General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi 17 times before the sit-ins at Rabaa and Nahda were dispersed. The White House made a strong effort to find a solution acceptable to both the army and the Brotherhood to end the crisis. President Obama telephoned Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan who is on good terms with the Egyptian government, and also Qatar’s Prince Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani who is well-connected and influential with the Brotherhood. In these conversations, Obama discussed concerns about violence in Egypt after the army deposed president Morsi, as well as the possibility of additional violence.

As footage of the sit-ins being dispersed was broadcast, the US Secretary of Defence telephoned General El-Sisi to warn him he had jeopardised a vital component of Egyptian-US military relations. US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the same to his former Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy. President Obama then announced the cancellation of the Bright Star war games without mentioning aid to Egypt and a statement by the US State Department on 9 October 2013 which announced the suspension of military aid to Egypt followed.

These developments left Washington even more divided. One camp had no objection to Morsi being deposed and the crackdown on the Brotherhood, while the other believed what occurred was a coup and thus Washington must halt all assistance and not deal with the coup government in any way. The US president was wedged between these two opinions when deciding what position to take. The divide in Washington was most conspicuous in Congress, whereby the House of Representatives, with a Republican majority, supported the position of the army and understood why it intervened; while the Senate, with a Democratic majority, condemned the move, especially after the new regime adopted repressive policies that reached beyond the Brotherhood to curb freedom of opinion, protest and civil society.

The US divide was even clearer in the US liberal media, with publications such as the Washington Post and New York Times viewing the events as a coup against an elected president. Morsi’s low approval ratings in the last weeks of his term were not enough reason for these newspapers to change their opinion. They viewed the Egyptian situation through the lenses of the American experience, whereby an approval rating below 30 percent is not cause for the Pentagon to intervene. Rather, it was up to a second round of elections to be the deciding factor.

Right-wing conservative media, such as the Wall Street JournalWashington Times and Fox, generally supported the Egyptian army and its intervention. Meanwhile, articles published in New York Times and Washington Post clearly express the anger of the US liberal current about Obama meeting El-Sisi at a time when this camp believed a serious setback in civil liberties and human rights had taken place.

Washington understood that neutrality towards Egypt and its new rulers was not an option in serving its strategic interests. It was a natural consequence for Obama to meet with El-Sisi after conditions deteriorated in the region, and officially end impartiality by restoring special relations between the two countries. The announcement by Egypt’s Air Defence Commander that “President El-Sisi’s visit to the US closed the Apache aircraft deal [the holding of which served as a symbol of US protests to actions of the new regime] and the aircraft will be delivered soon,” confirmed Egyptian side’s belief that relations had been restored and US impartiality had ended. The same was officially echoed by the US side when Kerry confirmed in Cairo recently that Egypt is a major partner in the region and the US strongly supports the reforms under way in Egypt.

Mohamed Elmenshawy is a researcher focusing on Egyptian politics. Follow him on Twitter @ElMenshawyM or contact him at mensh70@gmail.com

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