With Egypt in Crisis, Is Obama Playing it too Safe?

Once again, Middle East turmoil offers Obama few good options

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GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP / Getty Images

Egyptian opposition protesters celebrate on July 1, 2013 in Cairo's landmark Tahrir square

When protesters flooded the streets of Cairo in early 2011 demanding the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, Barack Obama took a firm stand: Mubarak had to step down. Ten days later, he did.

Nearly two and a half years later, and just one year after its first genuinely democratic election, Egypt is in turmoil again, with even vaster crowds calling for the ouster of Mubarak’s eventual replacement, Mohamed Morsi. On Monday, Egypt’s military issued Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum to appease the crowds lest the army intervene.

For now, however, Obama is treading far more carefully than he did in 2011. “Our commitment to Egypt has never been around any particular individual or party,” Obama said during his visit to Tanzania on Monday. “Our commitment has been to a process.”

(PHOTOS: Egyptians Protest the Rule of Morsi)

That process is democracy, and Obama is wary of seeming to force America’s will on the Arab world’s most populous country. “Our position has always been it’s not our job to choose who Egypt’s leaders are,” Obama added.

That careful neutrality comes with real risk, however. In country that remembers American tolerance of Mubarak’s repressive regime all too well, Obama is accused of turning a blind eye to Morsi’s power grabs and insularity. “We’re seen as being too forgiving of the undemocratic excesses of the Morsi government and dismissive of the opposition,” says the Century Foundation’s Michael Wahid Hanna. “That’s been damaging.”

In fact, many protesters—a broad term, given their varying social, political and economic agendas—were already wary of Obama, who only pushed Mubarak towards the exit after several days of massive protests and his regime’s thuggish response. In some quarters the wariness turned to outright hostility after the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson, warned last month speech against more mass demonstrations.

“Some say that street action will produce better results than elections. To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical,” Patterson said at a Cairo seminar on June 18. “Egypt needs stability to get its economic house in order, and more violence on the streets will do little more than add new names to the lists of martyrs.”

In response, some protesters have singled out Patterson for vitriol, carrying insulting signs and photos of the tough career diplomat—a response that a State Department spokesman on Monday called “abhorrent and reprehensible.”

(MORE: ‘The Day the Revolution Died': After Protests, Egypt’s Military Issues Morsi an Ultimatum)

The anger towards Patterson raises an issue of particular concern for the White House: the security of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which was threatened by an angry mob on the same day last year as the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya. On Sunday, White House national security council aide Ben Rhodes said that “additional security measures” are being taken at U.S. facilities in Egypt.

Patterson may have been impolitic, but her words accurately reflect the view of an administration keen to see Egypt—whose crippled economy has only survived months of haggling with the IMF over a $4.8 billion loan thanks to massive subsidies from oil-rich Qatar—find a measure of economic and political stability. Washington may not have been overjoyed to see Morsi, a leader of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, emerge from Egypt’s June 2012 elections. But Morsi’s willingness to maintain Egypt’s peace deal with Israel, and his relative friendliness towards the U.S., have appeased Washington.

Regardless of what Obama thinks or says, however, it may be too late for Morsi. “I think Morsi is irreparably damaged,” says Hanna. “He can’t govern.”

That raises the possibility of the military ruling the country again, as it did after Mubarak’s departure—a period that left no one happy. Even the military is disinclined to assume a political role, Hanna says. And Obama, mindful of America’s reputation not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world, isn’t eager to been seen supporting what many are describing as a possible military coup.

But there may be no other good option left, says Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “Because of the really poor decision-making by Morsi and his party, it now appears that putting Egypt back on a stable political trajectory may require the military once again to play a direct role in politics.”

A return to military rule would violate the democratic “process” that Obama calls paramount. How to respond would be just the latest in a series of unpleasant dillemas the Arab Spring has handed him since it began thirty months ago.

MORE: Egypt’s Morsi Faces Political D-Day One Year After Being Sworn in as President

19 comments
EssamBadawy
EssamBadawy

It's none of your business to interfere in Egypt's affairs, and I think you got the messages from the crowds that flocked in the streets raising slogans against America. We don't need your aids and we are a free country.

MahmoudAbdelRady
MahmoudAbdelRady

I want to say to Barak Obama : Stop supporting terrorism in Egypt .. muslim brotherhood is a terrorist gang trying to kill Egyptian people .. Stop supporting Qaeda Obama .. Egyptian army now protects what the Egyptian people wants .. IT IS NOT A COUP Liar

CheErMohamed
CheErMohamed

I am an Egyptian citizen, I love my country and will not allow any U.S. intervention on the popular ... Dear American people know very well that your President Obama is not only a tool driven by Israel for the interests of all what you are doing now U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson is not only more failed attempts to abort the popular revolution In Egypt, the revolution that stunned the world in order to maintain a civilization, heritage and identity, and habits that live by the Egyptian people .... you will never succeed endeavors in the dismantling of the people ... We the people will not invincible or kneel....EVER

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

OBAMA.......YOU HAVE REAPED......WHAT YOU HAVE SOWN........ABANDONING OUR ALLY MUBARAK AND BACKING THE MOSLEM BROTHERHOOD.......WHO HATE AMERICA.....JUST LIKE YOUR FATHER AN YOU DO......THAT IS WHY.....YOU , BARRY SOTERO ARE DESTROYING AMERICA.....

YOU WILL ANSWER TO GOD FOR YOUR SINS......

VALENTINE, COMEDIAN, LOL

ahandout
ahandout

 The real truth of Obama's support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

You Broke Mideast, Mr. President, Now You Own It


Read More At Investor's Business Daily: http://news.investors.com/ibd-editorials/092112-626667-obama-engineered-rise-of-egypts-muslim-brotherhood.htm#ixzz2Xvq7S78d

This is just another lie from the mouth of the greatest liar the world has ever seen:

“Our commitment to Egypt has never been around any particular individual or party,” Obama said during his visit to Tanzania on Monday. “Our commitment has been to a process.”


roknsteve
roknsteve

Mickey calls minding our own business "playing it safe."  And we know what John "Mad Bomber" McCain would do.

drudown
drudown

Taken to its illogical conclusion, the US could (literally) become enmeshed in EVERY single pre-civil war conflict arising in the Arab Spring. And towards what end? If the lesson of History in Iraq has taught anything, it's that we are powerless to actually enforce a Police Power with our military, much less justify the cost to the US taxpayers.

Give me a break.

Our government is one of LIMITED POWERS. Our leaders cannot capitulate to their Defense industry campaign contributors and place mere greed over the strategic, military and diplomatic interests of the People. There is a $4 trillion (and counting) unpaid tab for the Iraq war. As much as the Bush Administration sought to "recast" the "purpose" of the "mission" from "disarm Saddam's nuclear arsenal" to "Iraq is a place where civilization is taking a decisive stand against chaos and terror; we must not waver- W"...there is, in the final analysis, a dispassionate cost/benefit component. Tell me, what possible "benefit" is there to put US troops in the middle of an inevitable civil war where we stand no realistic chance of "winning" any more than preventing a sleepy man from sleep, or a dying man from death, for there comes a point where it is pointless, as well as useless, to resist.

"They love afar is spite at home." - Emerson

JohnDahodi
JohnDahodi

The US or any other country has no chance to meddle in the Egypt affair at this time. Because, the population is divided between the two opposite groups; more than 50% moderate Islamist, 20% hard core Jihadis and 30% secular and minorities. It is too bad, the Islamist have won the legitimate election and the defeated minorities are making more noise against the elected government than the majority. It is not in America's interest to support any one but to wait and watch how they can resolve their mess. The worst, the military is trying to win their lost battle by siding the minorities.  

gysgt213
gysgt213

We are on the wrong side. Again.

Altold
Altold

My problem is that US interest is too large - everywhere in the world. Why is the US accepting and participating in the complaints, problems and challenges of ALL the nations of the world. Do we derive pleasure when others are confused, complaining or even fighting?

PerryWhite1
PerryWhite1

I'm just glad we have grown-ups running the executive branch. The NeoCons would have had us invading two days ago.

anon76
anon76

@ahandout

"This is just another lie from the mouth of the greatest liar the world has ever seen:"

It takes a very considerate troll to voluntarily disqualify their opinion on the 4th line of their post, thus sparing any serious reader the agony of having to read further.  Other would-be-polite-trolls take note!

ahandout
ahandout

@roknsteve  rokn, inviting the Muslim Brotherhood to the White House is hardly "minding our own business."

anon76
anon76

@gysgt213 

I disagree.  We're on the right "side", which is keeping our damned noses clear and doing our best to deal with whomever emerges through the process.

outsider
outsider

@gysgt213 


No matter what the US does, it's on the wrong side. 

Not because it actually is, understand - but that's how it'll be perceived. 


It's kind of a mess. After 95 years of acting like the world police, and rising to a super power, it's a catch 22 now. If you don't help, you're being neglectful. If you do help, you're being heavy handed and not minding your business. 


I completely understand why (in the past) the US looked after it's own interests first; but now, as a result, no one trusts the US to do anything BUT look after it's own interest. 

And even when it doesn't (solely look after it's own interest), people are resentful and skeptical. 


Damned if you do, damned if you don't at this point. 

manlyman
manlyman

Grown ups? Now that's funny, I don't care who you are!