The White House reaction to the historic outpouring of Egyptians calling for the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi can be summed up as thus: Don’t turn attention away from President Obama’s heavily touted African tour.
As Obama flew to his last stop on the three-nation swing, Tanzania, Tamarod (Arabic for “rebel”) once again stole his thunder: The protesters won as the powerful Egyptian military announced a 48-hour ultimatum for an agreement to be reached on their demands. Otherwise, they’ll provide a “road map” for a post-Morsi country.
Still, the White House inundated reporters with fact sheets on Obama’s trade initiatives, health and power investments and efforts to combat wildlife trafficking in Africa, along with his new Young African Leaders Initiative.
But the Obama administration is facing uncomfortable truths that dwarf the opposition protesters’ inconvenient timing.
First, the protesters, who ranged from niqab-clad women decrying the Muslim Brotherhood’s lack of religious tolerance to Coptic Christian nuns, were openly expressing their disgust with Obama and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson for propping up and backing Morsi. “Obama and Patterson support terrorism in Egypt,” read one large banner bearing pictures of the two. Another sign showed Patterson happily shaking hands with Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie.
“Anne Paterson will likely go down in history as the most unpopular US ambassador ever for the people in her host country,” tweeted Cairo writer Bassem Sabry.
Not exactly the impression Obama hoped to impart upon Cairo with his 2009 “new beginning” speech to the Muslim world from here.
Second, the protesters are right. Obama welcomed Morsi into office as a democratically elected leader — Morsi won slightly over 50 percent of the vote with around 43 percent turnout in 2012 — while knowing full well the undemocratic aims of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s anti-Semitic remarks about “apes and pigs” were condemned yet ultimately forgiven. Today, even after the months of Muslim Brotherhood repression, after attacks on Coptic churches, after the conviction of 16 Americans by an Egyptian court for promoting democracy, Obama was practicing a policy of go along to get along.
“Our commitment to Egypt has never been around any particular individual or party. Our commitment has been to a process,” Obama said at a joint press conference with President Jakaya Kikwete in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “…They went through an election process that, by all accounts, were legitimate. And Mr. Morsi was elected. And the U.S. government’s attitude has been we would deal with a democratically elected government.”
Obama said his administration has “encouraged” the Muslim Brotherhood government “to reach out to the opposition and work through these issues in a political process.”
“It’s not the U.S.’s job to determine what that process is. But what we have said is, go through processes that are legitimate and observe rule of law,” he continued. “…I do think that if the situation is going to resolve itself for the benefit of Egypt over the long term, then all the parties there have to step back from maximalist positions. Democracies don’t work when everybody says it’s the other person’s fault and I want 100 percent of what I want.”
Obama boasted that the U.S. was used to compromise in its democracy because “we’ve had 200-plus years of practice at it.”
“But our position has always been it’s not our job to choose who Egypt’s leaders are,” he added. “We do want to make sure that all the voices are heard and it’s done in a peaceful way.”
A third truth weighing on the administration is that a government which was quietly slipped $1.3 billion in military aid by Secretary of State John Kerry a matter of weeks ago is on the verge of going under. Will Muslim Brotherhood loyalists be armed with more than just sticks if the ultimatum is ignored and the Islamist “National Alliance” becomes Morsi’s ragtag army? AlHayat TV reported this evening that the Muslim Brotherhood rejected the deadline, saying the rulers don’t need to take commands from the army.
It’s ammunition for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has been urging the White House and State Department from the advent of Morsi’s rule to stop sending fighter jets and tanks to the Islamist government. It also brings into question how Obama might similarly support a secular government not viewed in Washington’s eyes as legitimately elected but in need of support to fend off Islamist challenges.
And even though scattering from the Beltway for the July Fourth recess, lawmakers fired off concerns to Obama that his lack of foreign policy prowess could continue to mangle the U.S. reaction in another hotspot.
Every member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), signed on to a letter to Obama on Friday cautioning the president to turn a highly skeptical eye toward new Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani.
Far from a free and fair election, they noted, “more than 600 potential candidates were disqualified by an unelected body of Islamic jurists, leaving only those approved by government-appointed clerics.”
“Iran’s election unfortunately has done nothing to suggest a reversal of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capacity,” the lawmakers wrote. “…Decisions about Iran’s nuclear program and foreign policy rest mainly in the hands of Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamene’i. Khamene’i has recently reiterated his view that Iran has no reason to normalize relations with the United States.”
The letter expresses the omnipresent congressional anxiety that Obama doesn’t have a grasp on the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program or the wherewithal to accept no less than a totally dismantled nuclear program — theirs, not ours.
“For this outcome to be realized, Iran must face intensifying pressure. This means the full implementation of current sanctions available to your administration, and further legislative steps to close loopholes and broaden our sanction’s reach,” the committee wrote. “…An added positive action would be extending sector-based sanctions to the mining, engineering, and construction-based sectors of Iran.”
“It is important that you leave no doubt in the minds of the Iranian government that the United States will do all it can to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.”
Perhaps Congress’ fear is stirred by indications, only highlighted by the past couple of days, that yet another tyrannical force will enjoy, in Washington’s eyes, the status of a legitimate government.
“We respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate them for their participation in the political process, and their courage in making their voices heard,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement after the mid-June vote. “…It is our hope that the Iranian government will heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians. The United States remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”