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Sunday, August 25, 2013
Egypt’s political crisis confronts President Obama with a far more complex dilemma than does Syria.
While Syria is a humanitarian disaster caused by a repressive regime that refuses to relinquish power, Egypt‘s crisis results from the failure of a democratically elected government to function effectively and its overthrow by a military that previously held power until President Hosni Mubarak resigned in 2011, following a popular uprising.
Despite strenuous efforts by Obama and his lieutenants, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, to persuade Egypt’s military leaders to end the violence and negotiate with the ousted Muslim Brotherhood party, their efforts have been rebuffed. Egypt’s military leaders believe the Brotherhood was determined to establish an Islamic republic in Egypt.
What policy options does Obama now have?
Some congressional leaders and major newspapers are demanding a cut-off in U.S. military aid to Egypt, plus strong diplomatic pressure on its military-led government. Their argument is that America should not support any government that seizes power by force and denies its citizens the right to free speech and assembly. By overthrowing Mohammed Morsi’s elected government, military leaders should either build a broad-based coalition government or forfeit the right to govern Egypt.
An opposing view runs like this: Egypt’s experiment with democracy failed because the Muslim Brotherhood failed to put the country on a path to economic recovery and build a coalition to govern effectively. In fact, the Morsi government became repressive in dealing with the opposition, the media and foreigners.
Obama’s dilemma is heightened by the fact that Israel and key Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, strongly support Egypt’s military decision to oust the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
Oil-rich gulf states are giving Egypt $12 billion in aid, compared with roughly $1.5 billion provided by Washington. In reality, Egypt relies on its Arab neighbors for financial support.
For its part, Israel’s backing of the military takeover in Cairo stems from fear of the Brotherhood’s influence among Palestinians, especially the Hamas party, which refuses to accept Israel as a state. Israel felt more secure when Hosni Mubarak led Egypt.
Americans should acknowledge two fundamental realities about the Middle East and Washington’s waning ability to influence events. First, the United States lost credibility among Arab countries by its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its subsequent failure to promote a broad-based government that would be a bulwark against the Islamic Republic in Iran. Also, Obama’s strong support of the “Arab Spring” and his acquiescence in Mubarak’s ouster as Egypt’s president caused anguish among leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and the UAE. America’s declining influence over the past 10 years is the result.
Second, turning America’s back on Egypt’s military by cutting off aid will deprive Washington of its remaining diplomatic influence in Cairo. Without U.S. support, Egypt’s leaders may turn to other countries, Russia for example, to supply military equipment, including aircraft, as Moscow did in the 1950s after the U.S. cut off aid. The risk is that all U.S. influence in the ensuing struggle between Islamists and secularists in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East would be greatly reduced.
Obama is now being pulled in one direction by the idealism of millions of Americans who insist that he uphold our democratic values, and in another by the cold reality of Middle East politics whose leaders have little experience with or fondness for American-style democracy and individual freedoms.
How does the U.S. president forge a policy that both protects U.S. Middle East interests and upholds our belief in freedom and democratic government?
It’s the type of dilemma that all U.S. presidents face when dealing with the harsh realities of the international arena. Obama’s legacy as president may well depend on how wisely he charts a policy course on Egypt during the next few months.
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