When money doesn't talk: the US' false sense of control over Egypt
Policy zig-zags on Egypt have been a feature of the Obama administration for the past 30 months.
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The U.S. administration is clinging to the notion that billions of dollars in military aid buys influence over in Egypt – despite graphic evidence to the contrary, from bloody crackdowns on protesters to a state of emergency giving the military virtually unlimited power. While bodies were still being carried to morgues in Cairo on Aug. 14, a White House spokesman made clear that the administration was not planning to cut off military aid in response to the deaths of more than 200 people in a violent suppression of protest.
Pressed to explain why President Barack Obama’s administration still refused to call the July 3 overthrow of a democratically elected president a coup, the spokesman, Josh Earnest, said doing so carried “certain legal obligations.”
That was a reference to U.S. legislation that requires cutting aid to any country where the army removes an elected government. The Obama administration has studiously avoided using the word “coup” so it could ignore the law. The U.S. Senate has gone along, voting 86-13 last month against a bill to end aid. The rationale: weapons supplies, running at round $1.3 billion a year, provide “leverage” over the country’s military rulers.
That vote effectively gave away the lever needed to apply leverage. It came after statements from officials that the White House had “determined not to make a determination” on the nature of the removal of Mohammad Morsi, the first freely elected president in Egypt’s 5,000-year history. Gen. Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, the man who took charge after the president’s ouster, clearly had no problem reading the signals from Washington, even though they were mixed.
Such signals included the July 24 announcement that the United States had suspended the delivery of four F-16 fighters for the Egyptian air force.
Administration officials described it as a signal of displeasure with the military-installed government. But they also stressed it did not mean throttling the military supply pipeline. Since Egypt already has 240 F-16s – the world’s fourth-largest fleet of the fighters – a temporary delay in receiving another four makes little difference.
The weekend after the F-16 announcement, the Egyptian government launched its first big assault on demonstrators protesting the arrest of Morsi and other leaders of his government, all members of the Muslim Brotherhood. More than 80 people were killed. Reaction from the U.S. and other Western countries was muted. The Economist, a respected newsweekly not usually noted for America-bashing, complained that “the West’s failure to condemn the shooting of unarmed Islamists in Cairo was craven and short-sighted.”
Three days after that shooting, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that large-scale joint military exercises with Egypt, code-named Bright Star and involving more than 6,000 U.S. troops, would go ahead as planned in mid-September. Hagel’s announcement came on the same day as the Senate vote. Taken together, the two events could be viewed as a nod and a wink to Sisi to do as he pleases.
If that signal was not strong enough, Secretary of State John Kerry followed up with a remark that left absolutely no doubt as to where Washington stood on the matter of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, versus the Egyptian military. They had, according to Kerry, in fact restored democracy. “The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descent into chaos, into violence ... In effect, they [the military] were restoring democracy.”
After the bloodshed on Aug. 14, the worst in a single day since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, Kerry sounded a different tune. “Today’s events are deplorable and they run counter to Egyptian aspirations for peace, inclusion and genuine democracy ... We believe the state of emergency should end as soon as possible.” Administration officials said the Bright Star exercises were “under consideration.”
Policy zig-zags on Egypt have been a feature of the Obama administration for the past 30 months, beginning with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assertion on Jan. 25, 2011, that “our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for a way to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people. The United States, she said, was “not taking sides” in the confrontation between millions of protesters and their country’s authoritarian ruler, Hosni Mubarak.
Just six days later, the assessment changed. Washington did take sides. Obama called for an “orderly transition” to democracy to begin immediately. Mubarak, despised by many of his own people and ditched by the superpower that had propped him up for 30 years, stepped down a few weeks later.
In the turbulent period between then and now, U.S. policy on Egypt has been to “waffle, vacillate, fail,” in the words of Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. “The result of this vacillation? All sides in Egypt now hate the United States, which they are convinced backs their enemies.”
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