WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials took heat from both the right and left over the White House’s brusque stance toward the interim Egyptian government, with California Democrat Brad Sherman wryly noting “we didn’t criticize Morsi’s departure from democracy, but we are criticizing Morsi’s departure.”
But perhaps the most telling moment of testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this morning came when Elizabeth Jones, acting assistant secretary of State for Near East Affairs, was asked who was behind the burning of Coptic churches across the country.
“Some of them are just — are simply anti-Christian,” she stumbled in an answer that refused to point blame toward the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamic extremists.
Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said the hope is that the new government in Egypt, which includes women and Copts in its cabinet, and ordinary Egyptians will “reject the form of extremism that will only lead to the rights of women being eviscerated and minorities under attack in a gutted judicial system.”
“As one Egyptian recently told The Economist, ‘The Muslim Brotherhood was implementing a plan to burn down Egypt and destroy its foundation,'” Royce said. “While we would like a democratic partner for our many security interests in the region, we need a partner. We should push and pull with what influence we have.”
Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) stressed that “the government the military replaced was not a paragon of virtue.”
“It is true that President [Mohamed] Morsi won a reasonably free and fair democratic election with 52 percent of the vote,” Engel said. “But at the time this rushed election took place, the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organized political institution in the country. Morsi famously promised to rule for all Egyptians, but, upon taking office, he failed to uphold basic democratic values and treated his election victory as a license to rule in any way he saw fit.”
“President Morsi issued decrees that sacked the prosecutor general, immunized presidential decisions from judicial review and shielded the Islamic-dominated Sharia council and the constituent assembly from dissolution. He forced through a referendum on a new constitution that favored Islamist and conservative positions. His government drafted an NGO law that essentially placed civil society under state control… By the time the Egyptian military took the extraordinary step of removing Egypt’s first democratically-elected president from power, Morsi was a president in name only.”
The New York Democrat stressed that the Muslim Brotherhood had a future in mind “that would have been devastating to most Egyptians, to American interests and the interests of our allies in the region,” and that the Brotherhood’s “early doctrines provided the intellectual and theological underpinnings” for organizations such as al-Qaeda and Hamas.
Engel added that the ultimate goal of the MB remains “hoping to one day institutionalize Sharia law and build an Islamic caliphate through the region.”
“Are Egyptians and the United States better off with a Muslim Brotherhood-led government that was taking Egypt in a very dangerous and undemocratic direction or with a military-backed one that is slowly moving to a reboot of Egyptian democracy?” he asked. “I think the answer is clear.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa, said that “by failing to act decisively before, during, and after the Morsi era, we have lost so much credibility and leverage in Egypt.”
“For not disavowing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from the start, the moderate, secular and religious minorities in Egypt felt betrayed, and believed that the international community was supporting terrorists at their expense,” she said. “Morsi may have won an election, but we all know that elections alone do not make a democracy.”
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), ranking member of Ros-Lehtinen’s subcommittee, said it was important to properly characterize Morsi’s overthrow as a military intervention “at the request of the protesters only after Morsi made clear that he was not stepping down.”
“I have concerns about — both with the manner in which the suspension was communicated to Congress and to Egypt, and I worry that the result of these changes may mean that the United States may have less leverage to lead in Egypt,” Deutch said, noting that yesterday the United Arab Emirates ponied up $2.9 billion more in aid for Egypt.
But Jones said the administration was “troubled by the July 3 event” — Morsi’s departure amid Egyptians’ massive independence party — and viewed the 2012 presidential election as “free and fair.”
“However, Mr. Morsi proved unwilling or unable to govern inclusively, alienating many Egyptians,” she said. “…We will work to provide economic support that directly benefits the Egyptian people, including in the areas of health and private sector development, but are not moving forward with any further cash transfers to the government. We will review these decisions, informed by credible progress on the interim government’s political road map toward a sustainable, inclusive and peaceful transition to democracy.”
Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs, claimed the withholding of some military assistance — “the M1A1 tank kits, the F-16s, the Harpoon missiles, even the Apaches” — is “not affecting” the Egyptian government’s ability to fight an al-Qaeda surge in the Sinai peninsula. “We do encourage them to do more and we stay in very close touch with them on their operations and in terms of any particular needs that they have,” Chollet added.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) summed up the administration position like so: “But, of course, General el-Sisi, we do know, and we’re very grateful to him for stepping in to prevent this radical Islamic shift that would have destabilized the region and affected our own national security. We recognize that, but we’re not going to give him any weapons.”
“We’re hanging General el-Sisi and the people that we’re applauding for defeating radical Islam in Egypt — we’re leaving them hanging out to dry,” Rohrabacher said. “Our words of encouragement — yeah, giving them foreign aid, but not the ability to defend themselves — mean nothing.”
Engel asked if any consultation was conducted with regional governments before deciding to cut off aid. “It doesn’t appear to be very wise to start alienating governments that we’ve had 30 and 40 years of cooperation with,” he said.
“As thing rolled out — as things were under way in Egypt, we were in constant conversation with the Gulf states that you particularly asked about, as well as with our European allies to think how best we could work with the Egyptians to talk through how best — how best to manage the kind of events that they were — that they encountered, as this — as the events unfolded in Egypt,” Jones responded.
When asked what Egypt needs to do to get its aid reinstated, the official answer was similarly muddled.
“We have explained to them that as much as we understood the — the events that took place from June 30th onwards, because of the millions of Egyptians that supported the action that the interim government took on — on July 3rd, that we nevertheless, as the president put it, determined that we really could not continue business as usual, given the violence that — that ensued in — in August,” Jones said.
Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) said he had “great concern” upon Morsi’s election “that the country was going to head toward radical Islam.”
“So, I think it’s very important that we remain very engaged with Egypt. I think it’s especially important because of our relationship with Israel, our strongest ally,” Vargas said. “If you wanna talk about democracy, now there’s a democracy. They could teach us a little bit about democracy and that’s why I think we’re such allies with Israel.”
Vargas, a former Jesuit, said what’s happening to the Coptic Christians “is outrageous and we have to do something about it.”
But the State Department official had a hard time describing who was going after the Copts.
Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) noted that some 40 churches have been “bombed and burned since August.” When Jones said there have been some arrests in the attacks, Poe pressed her about the affiliation of the suspects.
“I don’t think I can give you a generalized answer to that question,” Jones said.
“Well, who are some of them?” asked Poe.
“Some of them are simply people who — some of them are just — are simply anti-Christian. Some of them are — it’s vendettas in communities. There are a great variety of reasons. I’m not sure I know all of — I certainly don’t know all of them. And I haven’t been privy to the — the questioning of the — of those who have been arrested,” Jones responded.
She added that the State Department has worked “very hard” to work with the Egyptian police on investigative training, but then conceded that the training was focused on crimes against women. “But also, in general on investigations of any crime,” she said.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party encouraged church attacks on a local chapter’s official Facebook page: “The Pope of the Church (Coptic Pope Tawadros II) took part in the ouster of the first elected Islamist president… For the Church to adopt a war against Islam and Muslims is the worst crime. For every action is a reaction.”
The only vocal Morsi apologist of the day on the dais was Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who protested the Vietnam War and said per the State Department’s logic the demonstrations should have delegitimized the Johnson and Nixon administrations.
“Am I to understand from that that the United States government is saying even if you win a free and democratic election, if you alienate people in your governance, it’s OK to overthrow it? Because I can think of some American administrations that might qualify for that,” Connolly said, comparing the Egyptian overthrow to justifications of support for Pinochet.
“In my view, it is not OK for the United States of America to say it’s OK to overthrow a democratically-elected government, however fledgling, and however much we disagree with it,” he added. “And it’s a sad day for me to sit here and see my government make such a statement.”