Egypt diplomats sense changing US attitude in Obama's UN speech

Dina Ezzat, Wednesday 25 Sep 2013

Barack Obama's comments at the UN are being seen by some in Egypt as a sign of US acceptance of Morsi's ouster

President Obama's Cairo University speech in 2009 (Photo: Reuters)

Although Egyptian dailies have been close to euphoria, diplomats and experts have been more pragmatic in their reactions to remarks on Egypt by US President Barack Obama before the UN General Assembly on Tuesday evening.

Addressing the global community from the annual gathering in New York, Obama said that former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi failed to be an inclusive president and that the interim government that replaced him "responded to the desires of millions of Egyptians who believed the revolution had taken a wrong turn."

This said, the US president was unequivocal in his criticism of the continued state of emergency, in place since the middle of August, and of other extraordinary security and political measures, which he said have caused reason for concern.

The interim authorities have "made decisions inconsistent with inclusive democracy — through an emergency law, and restrictions on the press, civil society and oppositional parties,” Obama said.

The US president added that in line with its commitments and interests, Washington has been and is still hoping to see a “government that legitimately reflects the will of the Egyptian people, and recognises true democracy as requiring a respect for minority rights and the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and a strong civil society.”

In the coming weeks and months, Obama said, the US will “maintain a constructive relationship with the interim-government that promotes core interests like the Camp David Accords and counterterrorism.”  He added that Washington will also “continue its support in areas like education that directly benefit the Egyptian people”. 

However, Obama reiterated that the US has “not proceeded with the delivery of certain military systems.”

The US president who, just a few days ago, asked Congress to suspend $5 billion of the annual US economic aid to Egypt, insisted in his address to the UN that the continued support of Washington is dependent “upon Egypt’s progress in pursuing a more democratic path.”

In his reaction to the statement, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, who is heading the Egyptian delegation in New York, said that Obama’s statement offered a clear qualification of the state of affairs of Egyptian-American relations.

Egyptian dailies, widely anti-Muslim Brotherhood, chose to offer a euphoric reading of the statement of the US president, which was limited to a reflection on the development of the US situation and the conditions that Washington is putting in place for future improvement.

Their banner headlines also focused on Obama's statement regarding Morsi’s failure to be an inclusive president and reflected very little on any of his concerns and conditions.

Egyptian diplomats, however, were more reserved in their reactions.

Speaking to Ahram Online from New York, Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdel-Atty said that the Egyptian delegation in New York is aware of the true message involved in the Obama statement.

Obama acknowledged the new political realities in Egypt and the removal of Morsi as an outcome of poor presidential performance and as being subsequent to massive popular demonstrations, Abdel-Atty said.

The spokesman added that for the most part, Obama's statement reflects Washington’s willingness to move beyond its initial apprehension, but that it also raises clear questions and demands regarding the future of Egypt, including the length of the state of emergency and commitment to a full democratic transition.

According to Abdel-Atty this perspective is the result of a number of meetings held by the senior Egyptian diplomats in New York with Obama and several members of Congress.

Fahmy and Obama, Abdel-Atty said, had a short encounter during a reception on the eve of the inauguration of the annual General Assembly, during which the US president told Egypt's foreign minister that he would make certain remarks on developments in Egypt.

“We made our point clear and we accepted that there is still room for improvement; we explained the state of emergency would have been removed, had it not been for the attempt on the life of the Minister of the Interior, and we discussed the way forward in pursuit of a full democratic transition,” Abdel-Atty explained.

According to Abdel-Atty, Obama's remarks on Egypt are in tune with a wider international willingness to move beyond an initial apprehensive reaction to the removal of Morsi.

“I am not saying that we have overcome all hurdles, but we can certainly say that things are truly moving forward and this is not just about a generally positive statement, but also concerns international alerts on travel to Egypt and the willingness of countries to work with the Egyptian government on a wide range of issues,” he added.

Political commentator Gamal Abdel-Gawad agreed that the Obama statement was a reflection on the current state of affairs, but described it as a positive signal to the international community to move on from apprehension over the change of government in Egypt, as well as a message to the Muslim Brotherhood to give up hoping for an international intervention that might lead to their return to power.

According to Abdel-Gawad, the Obama statement is really about the triumph of interests over principles for the US. Washington, he said, obviously wants to champion democratic concepts, which Obama said "they are still committed to.” However, the US has crucial strategic interest in Egypt.

Some of these interests were clearly marked out in the Obama statement – especially in relation to peace with Israel.

“The issue of democracy has always come up in the debates between Cairo and Washington, and it will always be so, but it is unlikely to be an issue over which relations will collapse,” Abdel-Gawad added.

Realistically, neither Abdel-Atty nor Abdel-Gawad are expecting a setback in bilateral Egyptian-American relations.

“Short of a very dramatic show of bloodshed or violence,” no setback should be expected said Abdel-Gaawad. “We know, however, that no democracy will be able to turn a blind eye to any violent attack by a government against its opposition,” he added.

The smoother the democratic transition, the better it is for Egyptian-US relations and the choice of a civil president will help in this regard, Abdel-Gawad said, “especially considering the apprehension of the west over military rule.”

Abdel-Gawad, however, added that if a military representative is to run for president in ‘a civil and democratic context,’ this might be accepted by the US.

Egyptian diplomats insist that the US too has a role to play in terms of improving bilateral relations. The nomination of the next US ambassador to Egypt, who will follow controversial figure Anne Patterson, is important, "in the sense that the style of any ambassador is crucial in promoting bilateral relations."

"At the end of the day, Patterson was executing policy based on an assumption that political Islam is the only answer for Arab countries... So, today, the US needs to send the right ambassador and adopt the right policies,” concluded Abdel-Gawad.

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