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The factors behind Obama's hands-off approach to Egypt

From anti-terrorism border surveillance to use of the Suez Canal, Egypt's military represents a crucial diplomatic tie for Washington.

August 22, 2013|By Shashank Bengali
  • An Egyptian soldier stands guard at the Tora prison in Cairo. Over the last two months, security forces have ousted and jailed Egypt's first freely elected president, killed or imprisoned hundreds of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and reasserted the pillars of Hosni Mubarak’s police state.
An Egyptian soldier stands guard at the Tora prison in Cairo. Over the last… (Amr Nabil, Associated Press )

WASHINGTON — In February 2011, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak bowed to a popular uprising and relinquished power, President Obama welcomed the change and declared, "Egypt will never be the same."

Two and a half years after the elation of the "Arab Spring," Egypt looks much as it did under the aging autocrat, only more violently polarized. Critics say Obama has mostly watched from the sidelines.

Mubarak's court-ordered release from prison Thursday in effect capped the end of Egypt's brief experiment with democracy and its return to military rule. Over the last two months, security forces have ousted and jailed the first freely elected president, killed or imprisoned hundreds of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and reasserted the pillars of Mubarak's reviled security state.

Obama's inability to ease the crisis reflects America's diminished ability to influence political outcomes in the Arab world's most populous nation. Administration officials have struggled to strike a balance: They expressed outrage over security forces shooting civilian protesters, but were careful not to jeopardize ties to the military, which the White House views as key to regional stability, particularly peace with Israel.

The result is a U.S. message that is "tough to explain, and very contradictory, but it is in fact functional," said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, an international affairs think tank. "It reflects Obama's very realistic, limited view of America's influence in the Arab Spring across the board."

Obama has taken a similar hands-off approach to the civil war in Syria, reluctant to arm the insurgents or otherwise directly intervene out of concern of being drawn into the bloodshed. White House spokesman Josh Earnest called Thursday for a United Nations investigation of the latest allegations that poison gas was used against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, but the White House signaled it would take no action.

"The U.S. seems to be deeply concerned about a whole lot of things that either it does not want to do anything about or is powerless to stop," Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted Wednesday.

In Syria, Obama appears to be acting — or not acting — on the advice of Pentagon commanders and other senior aides who worry that the Islamist rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Assad are hostile to the United States. In Egypt, Obama's reluctance to withhold $1.3 billion in annual military aid stems partly from doubt about whether the military-backed interim government will allow elections once the crisis subsides, as it has signaled, or will cling to power.

Earnest said Thursday that the aid package was "the subject of ongoing conversation" but remained intact. Obama's other actions on Egypt have been symbolic. He canceled a mostly ceremonial joint military exercise that was scheduled for next month and delayed but did not cancel delivery of four F-16 fighter jets.

U.S. officials' caution "reflects not only their sense that they have limited influence over the near-term decision-making of the Egyptian government, but also that they are still trying to discern what the trajectory will be in Egypt," said Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

The risk of a backlash is clear for U.S. policymakers. Egypt could prohibit U.S. warplanes headed to Afghanistan or other hot spots from passing through its airspace, or slow American warships transiting the Suez Canal en route to the Persian Gulf. It could also derail U.S. efforts to have Egypt improve surveillance on its borders with Libya and Israel to stop arms smugglers and terrorists, changes that Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, the army chief, has pledged to make.

"There are plenty of costs to cutting off this aid, and it comes just at the time when, finally, after 30-some years, Gen. Sisi comes in and opens up discussions on these issues," said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. "From the American military perspective, this would be a tragedy."

Even by criticizing the military takeover, the administration is at odds with its closest and most powerful regional allies. Israel and Saudi Arabia, which otherwise share few values, have backed the generals as the best hope for preserving regional stability. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have offered Egypt's interim government billions of dollars in aid and loans, dwarfing the U.S. assistance.

For a few weeks, U.S.-backed diplomatic efforts appeared to help hold off large-scale bloodshed. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Sisi more than a dozen times and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) met the general in Cairo to urge him to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Those efforts fell apart Aug. 7, and a week later Egyptian soldiers stormed the Brotherhood's protest camps, burning them to the ground.

"The prospect for getting negotiations between the military and the Brotherhood was always very low, and frankly I think the administration wasted some of its influence by even attempting to get those negotiations going," said Eric Trager, an expert on Egyptian politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The White House now hopes to persuade the military to ease back on the crackdown to avoid sparking even more instability in a country crucial to U.S. interests.

"It's another reason we shouldn't be punishing the military," Trager said. "We should be trying to work with it, encourage it to push Egypt forward in a more positive direction."

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

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