Since the collapse of the Mohamed Morsi regime in Cairo, the US administration has been suffering from its inability to find a reliable way of containing the damage to its policy across the region. The United States has once again become the target of public anger in Egypt following millions of Egyptians going into the streets to support the toppling of Muslim Brotherhood rule, which was backed by the US for a year.
The resentment towards Washington for its support of Brotherhood rule cannot be separated from its long history of failing to comprehend the course of events in the transitional process, in which the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau spoiled moves towards a real democratic system and complicated efforts to find common ground among all the country’s political forces and pushed the army to jump to the fore.
As a result, it has been hard for US officials to deal with their current dilemma and to accept the popular mandate given to the Egyptian Armed Forces to start a new political process with the limited participation of the Islamists, since the declared US policy had been to encourage and support the Islamists in power for several years beforehand.
Most US newspaper reports and testimonies in Congress seem to agree that Washington has few good options to deal with the current situation, considering that the possible freezing out of the Muslim Brotherhood could lead to a catastrophic situation even as the present enormous polarisation in Egypt makes reconciliation that much more difficult.
Despite the fact that US officials are cautious about calling the army’s move in Egypt a coup, the administration faces undeniable criticism from both the pro-Brotherhood lobby and the traditional pro-democracy camp within US think-tanks to declare it as having indeed been a military coup. While these camps have their own arguments, they are both failing to catch the essence of the 30 June demonstrations against the deposed former president.
President Barack Obama has been criticised for his lack of vision in the troubled Middle East and for not reacting decisively to the crisis in Egypt. Even when Obama tried to explain the US ambiguity, he came under fire for ignoring the history of the country. “Well, on Egypt, obviously we’re all looking at the situation there with concern. The United States has supported democracy in Egypt. It has been challenging given that there is not a tradition of democracy in Egypt. And the Egyptian people have been finding their way,” Obama commented.
Critics answered him that he had failed to address the fact that Egypt had had democracy in the 1922-52 period. Claims that Egypt is “immature” in its practice of democracy have backfired in Egypt itself, where many consider such a notion to be an insult to the popular movement to correct the course of democracy in the country.
Meanwhile, in the absence of a US initiative the White House seems to be relying on European efforts to reach agreement on a “fully-inclusive transition process, taking in all political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood”. In Cairo itself, critics deplored the US administration’s apparent inability to get the former president to halt his attempts to arrogate power to himself, making US mediation subsequently unacceptable in such circumstances.
“The Obama administration turned against [ousted former Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak, once an American ally, but it stood faithfully by his successor, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, even as the protests against him grew massive. Although Morsi pursued an agenda inimical to liberal values, Washington shrugged off his critics. This tin-eared allegiance to Islamism-in-power has fanned the flames of anti-Americanism in the Egyptian democracy movement,” the Washington Post said earlier this week.
The popularity of military commander General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi among the majority of Egyptians has added more restrictions to the American stance. The administration has avoided calling what happened in Egypt a “coup”, since that would have required military aid to be cut under laws set by Congress. However, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have also turned against the administration in recent statements, accusing Washington of turning a blind eye to the ousting of Morsi despite the strong bond that both parties created over the past year.
These recent statements reflect a real predicament inside the administration. “It is not ignoring the law. It was a review of what is applicable under the law, abiding by the law. We’re continuing to work with Congress. This is ongoing. Obviously, our relationship with Egypt and the aid we provide and decisions over that is an ongoing process. So today is not an end. As we’ve talked about quite a bit, certainly the circumstances that have happened on the ground are very complicated. And we wanted to take the time and do due diligence, to review. But there’s no question that there’s a larger issue of our strategic interests here and our interests as they relate to regional peace and security,” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said following the clashes in Cairo last week.
The diminishing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt itself has kept US reactions proportional. In a rare report from Cairo, the Washington Post admitted the little sympathy that the group had at home and abroad. “The Brotherhood’s plight is that while the group might have many members, it has no allies left, either within Egypt or outside it. Morsi’s year in office, rife with mismanagement and miscalculations, seemed to infuriate most everyone outside the Brotherhood,” the newspaper said.
In sum, the coming US response to the evolving situation in Cairo will depend on several factors. These include, first, possible clashes between Egyptian state security and the protesters, second, the ability of European mediation to forge a reconciliation, and third, the outcome of the situation in both Libya and Tunisia, where the Islamists are encountering challenges to the power-sharing process that might change the whole concept of the Arab Spring in both the US and Europe.