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Why US Policy Toward Egypt Reveals Divisions Within the Obama Administration

August 22, 2013 by  


By Abdulla Tarabishy, TMO
With Egypt in an unpredictable state of turmoil at the moment, it is natural that the US would be unsure of what to do or say. However, statements from US officials in the past few weeks have revealed that there are disagreements within the Obama administration over what the US policy toward Egypt should be.

It is no secret that the US has never had, and likely never will have, a warm relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. The two have dramatically different philosophies on issues ranging from the Syrian crisis to Israel-Palestine. Yet the US felt it could work with Morsi, and during Morsi’s first year, it worked to build a cordial relationship with the Egyptian president. Therefore, when Morsi was overthrown in July, the Obama Administration was faced with a dilemma: it could either support Morsi and risk angering an important ally in the Egyptian military, or it could support the military and be seen as standing in the way of democracy.

Of these two options, the US has not clearly chosen either. As the conflict grew, deputy Secretary of State William Burns attempted to mediate between the two sides on numerous occasions, and discouraged the military from overthrowing Morsi. However, once the overthrow occurred, the US refused to recognize it as a coup, yet they called for an immediate return to civilian rule. Then, three weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry gave what appeared to be an endorsement of the military’s actions, telling Pakistan’s Geo TV that “The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descent into chaos, into violence. And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment – so far. To run the country there’s a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy.” Naturally these statements were overblown by many international media outlets, which ran huge headlines saying that “Kerry Says Egyptian Military Restored Democracy.” Nevertheless, Kerry’s statements were a shocking slap in the face to those supporters of Morsi who had hoped that the US would declare the situation a military coup.

What is also strange about Kerry’s comments is that they seem to contradict other statements coming from the state department, which has continuously expressed deep concern over the Egyptian military’s actions. Kerry’s statements also contradict the president himself, who recently cancelled a joint military exercise and said that American aid would be reviewed. However, while statements from the Obama administration show concern, the administration has yet to take any concrete action to back up its words. It has thus far refused to label the military’s takeover a ‘military coup’, which would necessitate a freeze in the more than $1.5 billion the US sends to Egypt every year.

By neither condemning the actions of the military, nor supporting them, the US has only angered all sides in this crisis. The Obama Administration must make it clear to the Egyptian military that while it is interested in continuing the strategic partnership between them that partnership cannot continue while the military remains in power. They should label the overthrow of Morsi a military coup and immediately suspend all aid until the military stops its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and new elections are held. Egypt, the second largest recipient of American aid, cannot continue to occupy that position with a military dictatorship in power. But cutting aid would not be enough. American diplomatic and military support is far more valuable, and the US could put tremendous pressure on the military. In the words of senior Republican senator John McCain, “There are many areas where we could exercise influence over the generals, and we’re not doing any of it, and we’re not sticking with our values.”

The fact is that there is bipartisan support  for ending aid to the Egyptian military in the US Congress. McCain, quoted earlier, is one of the most important Republican senators, and his calls to end aid have been echoed by many other Republicans. Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin, head of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, has also called for an end to aid, and is supported by many from his own party. Congress would back President Obama if he were to suspend aid until Egypt returned to civilian rule, and he should no longer hesitate to do so. The US has made the mistake of supporting military dictators before, and it should not make that mistake again. American support for the brutal Shah of Iran led to the takeover of a hostile regime that is still causing the US problems today, and US support for Hosni Mubarak’s regime caused the current situation in Egypt in the first place. At the moment, it may seem easiest to turn a blind eye to what is happening in Egypt, but in the long term, that would be a huge mistake.

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