Obama's Tamarod Problem
If the Obama administration is uncomfortable dealing with the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Washington is in for even more telling decisions as the uprising against the Islamists grows in other Arab Spring countries and beyond.
That could include the need to pick sides on untested ground bordering Israel and Egypt, where some residents inspired by Egypt's overthrow have decided they'd rather have jobs and trash pickup over leaders constantly sinking resources into perpetual jihad.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Friday that Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi "had a very good conversation" when Kerry told the military leader that the U.S. would withhold large-scale military systems and cash assistance until, in the words of the original announcement, Washington determines there is "pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections."
"We both agreed that we have – that it’s important for the two countries to continue working together," Harf said. "That’s why we’re continuing our relationship and that’s what we’re focused on right now, working with them to do just that."
To many observers, the administration's move came across as a half-measure meant to scold Egypt for the people-powered, military-assisted overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, who goes on trial Nov. 4 to face charges of killing and torturing protesters outside the presidential palace last December.
To anyone paying attention to the administration's unwavering use of the word "inclusive," the withdrawal of aid underscored Washington's insistence that the Muslim Brotherhood be included in the diplomatic process toward forging a new Egypt, as well as administration anger that Brotherhood leaders were arrested and are facing trial for crimes against the Egyptian people.
The interim government's cabinet includes three women and three Christians, inclusiveness never seen with the Muslim Brotherhood, yet no Islamists. A constitutional committee of 50 is busy drafting amendments to the document written by the Brotherhood; suggestions in the committee process have included equal protection for all ethnicities, genders and faiths, a certain number of legislative seats reserved for women, and the banning of religious political parties.
"I think we have to be very careful about telling another government how they should set up their government. We haven't been too successful at that. But we have to be very careful also with Egypt," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said last week.
"I think it's very important that we nourish that relationship and that we let them know that we are supportive of them and supportive of them coming up with a democratically elected president, administration, however way they structure it," McKeon added.
The Obama administration, which demanded snap elections in July, continues to say that the democratic process isn't moving ahead fast enough for them.
“We will continue to work with the interim government to promote our core interests and to support areas that benefit the Egyptian people,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week. “The president was also clear, and has been clear, that we are not able to continue with business as usual.”
"If inclusive democracy unlocks U.S. aid, the Freedom and Justice Party must compete in #Egypt's upcoming elections. Hard to do from jail," former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted.
The slashing of aid and the administration's assumption that it's still a power broker that can force Cairo's hand, though, hasn't had the effect Washington hoped.
Al-Sisi's popularity, already enviable for any leader, is even higher since Washington's slap on the wrist and could propel him to victory should he decide to run for president. If the Obama administration views him as a menace who toppled democratically elected Morsi, the Egyptian people view him as the superhero who stepped in front of a Muslim Brotherhood train hurtling out of control and took Egypt back for the people.
Lost in many administration assessments of what happened in Egypt this summer are the facts that 22 million people, more than a quarter of the population, signed the grass-roots Tamarod petitions to demand Morsi go, and some 14 million from veiled women to Coptic nuns turned out in the streets to protest the Muslim Brotherhood government. Al-Sisi tried to first negotiate concessions out of the Muslim Brotherhood government, and then told Morsi it was time to exit.