As Arab Spring democracy uprisings spread across the Middle East, President Barack Obama’s response to the political unrest has been to voice support for people seeking representative governments but limit the role the United States will play to shape those efforts.
The president’s philosophy of limited engagement is facing perhaps its toughest test in Egypt, where the nation’s first democratically elected president was ousted by military forces with deep, decades-long ties to the U.S.
The White House has refused to declare Mohammed Mursi’s removal from power a coup - a step that would require Obama to suspend $1.3 billion in annual aid - even after the military-backed interim government led crackdowns last week that left more than 600 people dead and thousands more injured.
Obama’s resistance to suspending U.S. support for Egypt’s military leaves the White House with little leverage, effectively relegating the president to the role of a bystander issuing strongly worded statements. The U.S. position has also stirred up anti-American sentiment in Egypt, with Mursi supporters accusing the U.S. of failing to live up to its own democratic values by allowing an elected leader to be pushed aside.
Obama insists that the U.S. stands with Egyptians seeking a democratic government. But he says America could not determine Egypt’s future and would not “take sides with any political party or political figure.”
“I know it’s tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what’s gone wrong,” Obama said Thursday in remarks from his rented vacation house in Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard.
“We’ve been blamed by supporters of Mursi. We’ve been blamed by the other side, as if we are supporters of Mursi.”
“That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve,” Obama added.
Steven Cook, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Obama’s “middle-splitting” approach for Egypt undercuts U.S. support for democracy in the region.
“The idea that we can influence the trajectory of the politics is foolish,” Cook said. “But to have not been consistent in emphasizing our own values in this situation is a mistake. We should stick to the principles of democracy and recognition for the rule of law.”
However, the U.S. relationship with Egypt has long required Washington to ignore the country’s repressive politics in exchange for regional stability. For 30 years, the U.S. propped up Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak in part to ensure that he maintained Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, one of only two such accords in the Arab world.
But Obama abandoned Mubarak in 2011, when millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand an end to his rule. Mubarak eventually resigned, clearing the way for Egypt’s first democratic elections and inspiring pro-democracy protests in other countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
The U.S. has consistently voiced support for the popular uprisings and in some cases demanded that autocratic leaders leave power. In Libya, the U.S. joined with allies to set up a no-fly zone to help opposition forces oust longtime leader Mummar Gaddafi. And in Syria, the U.S. has levied economic sanctions and approved light weaponry for rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's government, though it has done little to stop the civil war that has left more than 100,000 people dead.
But throughout the Arab Spring, the White House has been wary of getting too deeply involved in setting up new governments in the region.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the president does not believe it is his role to “engineer a political process.”
“The challenge for us is that picking winners and seeking to engineer a solution puts us right in the middle of the situation and ultimately makes the U.S. the issue,” Rhodes said.
The president’s approach was shaped in part by his opposition to the Iraq War, a conflict that was first built as an anti-terrorism campaign but became a U.S.-led exercise in democracy-building. Obama oversaw the end of the war in his first term and has since tried to keep the war weary, economically strapped U.S. out of other lengthy foreign conflicts.
Obama’s philosophy is also driven in part by concerns that the governments formed after the Arab Spring uprisings may be more detrimental to American interests than the autocratic regimes they replace.
Before Mursi’s ouster, U.S. officials were worried that the Egyptian leader fit into that category. A senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mursi was accused of giving the Islamist political movement undue influence in the government after he took power. Egyptians also blamed him for failing to make good on promised economic reforms.
The military removed Mursi from power last month following massive street protests that drew comparisons to the demonstrations that ousted Mubarak in 2011. The military has promised to roll back Mursi’s Islamist constitution and hold free elections next year.