Barack Obama’s meandering quest for a policy for post-revolution Egypt may best be summed up, if not pinned down, by his own words: The US would not consider Egypt an ally, "but we don't consider them an enemy.”
In an interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo, the US president characterized the post-Mubarak regime as "a new government that is trying to find its way." He warned that if this government took actions showing "they're not taking responsibility," then it would "be a real big problem.”
These comments, which were never clarified, were not made after Egypt’s masses rose up against President Mohamed Morsi on June 30, or his removal Wednesday, June 3 by a military coup.
They were uttered eleven months ago, on Sept. 12, 2012, at a time of violent Arab turmoil which specifically targeted the United States.
Crowds had just climbed over the walls of the US Embassy in Cairo, torn down the American flag and replaced it with the black flag of radical Islam.
In Benghazi, terrorists had attacked the US consulate and murdered an American ambassador and three staffers. Yet Obama had nothing definite to say about ties with Egypt, although intelligence reports disclosed that al Qaeda was behind the double attack in Benghazi and it was led by two Egyptians who were well known in Morsi’s inner circle.
This omission no doubt owed much to the US president’s reluctance to implicate the new Islamist regime in Cairo in an act of terror because he still hoped his blueprint for a new US-oriented Muslim Sunni axis, led by Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan and Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, would take off.
Obama’s hoped-for US-oriented Sunni bloc melts away
This alliance first went into diplomatic action two months later. In November, 2012, US Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton, orchestrated an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire which ended the military operation Israel had launched against the Gaza Strip in response to a long Palestinian rocket campaign. The ceasefire was negotiated in the nick of time to avert an IDF ground invasion of Hamas-ruled territory.
Where is this plan nine months later?
1. The Sunni bloc which the Obama administration worked so hard to fashion has since melted away.
2. None of the Muslim rulers designated to lead the venture remain in power – or else survive on shaky ground. Sheikh Hamad Al Thani retired last week and handed power to his 33-year old son Sheikh Tamim bin Khalif Al Thani; Erdogan is challenged by furious protesters; Morsi’s presidency was overthrown Wednesday, July 3, by the Egyptian military in response to the will of tens of millions of Egyptians; Hamas is deeply split between the pro-Turkey political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal, who endorsed the ceasefire with Israel and who was turned down in his recent bid for Turkish military aid, and the pro-Iran heads of Hamas’s military wing.
The pillars on which Obama erected his Middle East policy in the past year were broken reeds as far as Muslim rulers were concerned.
The military is king in two Arab capitals – not Muslim rulers
3. On the region’s Sunni streets, America fares no better: Most of the protests, especially the rallies this week in Egyptian cities, were as anti-American as they were anti-Muslim Brotherhood. Prominent among the banners were large placards depicting outgoing US Ambassador Anne Patterson, who is tapped as next Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, alongside those of Morsi. Both had large red Xes slashed across them.
Patterson is a strong believer in the Muslim Brotherhood as the bedrock of US Middle East policy, a view countered stridently by the Arab street. This week, the Egyptian people effectively bankrupted that perception.
4. In regional terms, and at the level of superpower rivalries, Washington’s venture into sponsorship of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood was equally disappointing. The Brotherhood’s role in the Syrian revolt is smaller than generally depicted in the West and its military clout has diminished since the uprising broke out in early 2011.
The military coup which unseated the first ever Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo is viewed in the Muslim world as a humiliating defeat for the movement.
(See a separate item in this issue on the effect of the Egypt uprising on the war in Syria)
It doesn’t matter to Muslims whether their brethren were beaten down by a popular uprising as in Egypt or in a bloody war as in Syria. The common factor is the same: The military has pushed the Islamist president out in Cairo and Syrian armed forces are keeping them out of power in Damascus. The army is king in two Middle East capitals.
Military chiefs reject Washington’s plan for defusing the crisis
In a bid to overturn this equation in Cairo, the Obama administration stepped in with two early morning phone calls Tuesday, July 2, hoping to head off a military coup – which in fact took place the following day. Obama called from Tanzania to promise Morsi US support if he was “more responsive” to the opposition’s demands, while Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey hinted on the phone to Egyptian chief of staff Gen. Sedki Sobhi that the annual $1.3 billion military allocation to Cairo might be in jeopardy in the event of a military takeover.
Neither talked directly to the man who held the key to resolving the crisis, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
Whereas in February 2011, Obama kept an open line to the former defense minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in stage after stage of the Tahrir Square revolution which unseated Hosni Mubarak, the situation this time was different: Obama knew he would never talk Egypt’s current defense minister out of his resolve to get rid of the Islamist president, and so he decided not to risk a personal rebuff.
In the event, Egypt’s military chiefs ruled against Washington’s proposal for a way out of the crisis – as our Middle East sources reported – and opted instead to issue Morsi with a 48-hour ultimatum, which he greeted with defiance.
Egyptian uprising sends strong ripples to other arenas
Tuesday, July 2, Egyptian Interior Minister Gen. Mohamed Ibrahim made the gesture of placing at the disposal of the army all the police, internal security forces and intelligence agencies under his jurisdiction. This snatched away from the president and government the support of 300,000 service personnel, a force larger than the regular army. They were left without police or security protection alone with their own adherents.
The turbulence in Cairo has sent strong ripples out into other arenas. It is already eating away at US standing in the Persian Gulf and vis-à-vis Russia and China, as this issue reports in separate articles.