US credibility 'in tatters' over Egypt crisis
- 16 August 2013
- From the section Middle East
On the streets of Cairo it's not just a fledgling democracy that lies in ruin. US policy too is in tatters - in the eyes of many - or at least America's reputation and credibility.
Since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the US has struggled to strike a balance between support for the tenuous progress towards democracy and protection of its national security interests.
The White House has tried hard to work with whoever is in power in Egypt but has ended up with no friends and little influence in Cairo.
Washington's recent diplomatic efforts in Egypt have failed one after the other. Up until his removal from power, the US tried to counsel Mr Morsi to accept a compromise with the army and the protesters.
The US also appealed to the military not to remove Mr Morsi. After the coup, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns travelled to Cairo twice to help mediate between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. But even getting an audience in Cairo these days is a hard task for US officials.
The US refrained from calling Mr Morsi's removal a coup for fear of upsetting the country's generals and the millions who demanded Mr Morsi's departure.
This has infuriated the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters who feel robbed of a democratic election. But far from ingratiating the US with the new interim rulers and the generals, Washington finds itself criticised by the anti-Morsi camp for what they perceive to have been the US's unconditional support for Mr Morsi while he was in power.
When President Barack Obama interrupted his holiday in Martha's Vineyard, he "strongly'' condemned the violence and said the US opposed the imposition of martial law in Egypt. He sounded sombre and stern, though he spoke in an incongruous summer resort setting, he mostly seemed frustrated.
"America cannot determine the future of Egypt. That's a task for the Egyptian people. We don't take sides with any particular party or political figure," said Mr Obama.
Some argue that the mere fact the US is still providing military aid to Egypt means the US has taken sides with the army. But Egypt's commanding general, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, has been openly scathing of the US.
"You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won't forget that," said Gen Sisi in a recent Washington Post interview. "Now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians?"
President Obama said it was tempting to blame the United States or the West for what was going wrong in Egypt.
"We've been blamed by supporters of Morsi. We've been blamed by the other side, as if we are supporters of Morsi. That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve. We want Egypt to succeed. We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That's our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work."
Mr Obama did cancel a planned joint military exercise with Egypt and said American aid would be reviewed.
The US cancelled the biennial Bright Star military exercise in 2011 as well because of the post revolution upheaval and to press the country's interim military rulers to stick to the agreed democratic transition plan.
But today, Egypt's generals are not listening any more, not since US Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to endorse their latest move.
"The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descent into chaos, into violence," Mr Kerry told Pakistan's Geo TV two weeks ago.
"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," he added.
US policy so far had been convoluted - it wasn't calling it a coup and it wasn't not calling it coup. American officials were furiously backtracking for days after Mr Kerry's comment, but the statement could no longer be undone.
But Mr Kerry's comments were also a reflection of years of close co-operation between Washington and Cairo. Despite all the upheaval, Egypt and its army remains a key security partner.
The generals' support is crucial to maintaining the country's peace treaty with Israel, the Camp David accords signed in 1979. Washington also supports Egypt in its fight against militants in the Sinai, bordering Israel. Washington is also worried about access to the Suez Canal.
A recent report released by the Congressional Research Service highlighted concerns within the administration and congress about how to maintain security co-operation with Egypt at a time of continued upheaval. The report was issued before Mr Morsi's ouster but the concerns remain the same now that he's gone.
Egypt gives the US Navy expedited passage through the Suez Canal while other countries have to wait for weeks. About a dozen US warships pass each month through the Canal, a key shortcut to reaching Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Without passage through the canal the Navy would have to deploy ships around the Cape of Good Hope - adding significant time to deployment from Norfolk, Va. to the Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean," the report said.
The US is also still dealing with the consequences of cutting military aid to another country for several years.
In 1990, the US suspended aid to Pakistan because of nuclear proliferation related sanctions. In the decade that followed, Washington and the Pentagon's connection with the Pakistani military frayed - Pakistani officials stopped coming to the US for training, for example. To this day, although aid has resumed, the relationship has yet to recover, with a direct impact on counter terrorism co-operation.
But critics of the administration's position on Egypt are growing by the day.
Republican Senator John McCain has repeatedly called on the White House to declare the removal of Mr Morsi a coup and cut aid. Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Washington shared responsibility for the bloodshed. The common message is that maintaining ties with the military has become too costly for the US.
"I think it's time for the United States to recognise that what we have here is the restoration of a military dictatorship in Cairo," said Tamara Wittes from the Brookings Institution, and a former State Department official working on Middle East democracy issues during the first Obama administration.
"That means that the United States needs to call these events what they are - under American law it needs to suspend assistance to the Egyptian government because this was a military coup and it is a military regime."
Ms Wittes also said the Egyptian army would maintain security co-operation with the US, even if aid was cut, because it was in its own interest. For now that's a risk the Obama administration is not willing to take.