The Obama administration seems powerless in its effort to persuade the Egyptian military to halt the violence against civilians that has resulted in hundreds of deaths this week. The crisis lays bare the diminished U.S. influence on the Egyptian military compared to only two years ago.
In 2011, President Obama and the Egyptian military appeared to be on the same page. In response to calls not to fire on demonstrators against Hosni Mubarak, the military actually protected the protesters and Obama was able to help usher in the Arab Spring by urging the Egyptian strongman to step down. In 2013, Egypt’s military has ignored every recommendation from the White House and the administration is either unwilling or unable to use what little leverage America has left to pressure Egypt’s interim government to abide by U.S. and international requests.
While Egypt was a close ally of the U.S. for decades until the 2011 revolution, over the past two years the Obama administration has seen its influence there dwindling for a variety of reasons, according to experts and observers. The internal politics in Egypt have become more nationalistic and virulently anti-American. The Obama administration has had a timid, reactive, and somewhat-incoherent policy that has alienated all sides and sacrificed opportunities to use limited American leverage. Meanwhile, other regional actors have stepped into the void to play a larger role.
“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces,” Obama said Thursday in his first public remarks on the violence that continues to roil several Egyptian cities. “While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.”
Obama announced that the U.S. was canceling Bright Star, the joint military exercises planned for next month, but didn’t say anything about the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. gives the Egyptian military each year. It remains to be seen if the Egyptian government will respond to Obama’s missive; they haven’t acquiesced to the administration’s demands thus far.
In late June, even before the Egyptian military deposed and arrested President Mohamed Morsi, top U.S. officials urged the military against the move. Since the military takeover, the administration has been urging the military-led interim government to refrain from arresting Muslim Brotherhood leaders, avoid instituting martial law, allow for peaceful protests, and reach out to Islamists. All of those requests have been ignored.
Many in Washington say the Obama administration’s relative impotence this time around is due to a refusal to really put pressure on the Egyptian military and government.
“In 2011, the administration told the military clearly that if you kill hundreds of people in Tahrir Square, then our relationship will be severely damaged. This time they didn’t do that,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. “This administration is extremely reluctant to use pressure against its allies. Then when they try to do so, it’s too little, too late, and less effective.”
Most experts were expecting Obama to at least suspend military aid for the duration of the violence and were disappointed that the administration still won’t use the funding as pressure, even though suspending payments might not be enough to change the Egyptian military’s behavior.
Obama noted Thursday that both sides in the conflict blame the U.S., a popular and expedient political tactic in Egypt. But the Obama administration fed that sentiment by instituting an Egypt policy since 2011 that alienated key actors and failed to use U.S. leverage at key moments that led up to the current conflict, McInerney said.
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