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

Once again, Middle East turmoil offers Obama few good options

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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