As Egypt stares into the abyss with at least 278 killed and hundreds injured yesterday, the U.S. diplomatic muddle and its fading influence has been magnified in the lead up and duration of the crisis. The Barack Obama administration waited too long to address the core issues festering since the revolution began in 2011, and squandered its own latest mission to Cairo, by sending mixed messages to the authorities and the Egyptian public.
While Egypt’s deadliest day since the uprising did not come as a surprise to Washington, it put the administration in a quandary and offered little flexibility in dealing with the country’s most powerful player: the army. The U.S. does not have many options in responding to Egypt’s security crackdown, which forcefully evicted the Brotherhood sit-ins, and instated a short-term curfew and a 30 day emergency law. For security and geopolitical reasons the White House cannot risk damaging ties with Egypt’s military, and contrary to the common belief, it does not have enough leverage over it.
The U.S.’s fading influence and controlled leverage was on full display in the last few weeks. The administration’s own diplomatic efforts, led by deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, imploded after series of mishaps by the bosses in Washington. Burns spent more than six days in Cairo trying to convince its leaders to rally behind an inclusive transition. However, those efforts were undermined by mixed messages that squandered his mission.
U.S. policy in Cairo has been cautious and more reactive than pro-active in the last two yearsJoyce Karam
Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the diplomatic breakdown, stating that the U.S. had repeatedly urged “the government to respect the rights of free assembly and free expression” and to “resolve this impasse peacefully.” In essence, Kerry is admitting that not only has Egypt’s military shrugged off the Obama administration but also that American diplomacy has been ineffective.
The top U.S. diplomat himself oscillated viewpoints on the issue of Egypt, declaring in Pakistan few days ago that the “generals were restoring democracy” in ousting former President Mohammed Mursi last month, a statement that complicated Burns’ talks in Egypt and diminished whatever leverage he had over the military. Then came the White House which did not do the envoy any favor by encouraging Senators John McCain’s and Lindsey Graham’s trip to Cairo last week. Public statements made by the two Republican senators, which contradicted those made by the administration, infuriated the military and emboldened their opponents. Sources tell Al Arabiya that army commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cut short his meeting with the senators. Burns’ mission ended right after this, and the situation has been escalating since then.
Washington’s mixed messages on the issue of “the coup” and the absence of strong public engagement did lot of damage to its credibility among Egypt’s political class and the public. The U.S. role has been viewed with lot of suspicion since the revolution in 2011, due to its failure to make its position clear and its failure to voice objections on issues key to the protestors, such the constitution and the judiciary. U.S. policy in Cairo has been cautious and more reactive than pro-active in the last two years, a combination that diminished Washington’s credibility and leverage inside the country. Obama has not visited Egypt since 2009, and has publicly taken a more passive role since the revolution.
The aid question
Yesterday’s events have reignited questions about the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt’s military. Since the Camp David treaty in 1979, the U.S. has given Egypt more than 29 billion dollars in military aid, and a similar amount in economic aid. In effect, cooperation between the two countries has been key for the U.S. to ensure access to military routes in the region, maintaining Israel’s security and fighting terrorism.
The administration has been keen on keeping up the aid by refraining from describing the events of July 3rd as a coup.
The problem with U.S. policy towards Egypt is not in the aid, which if cut al-Sisi will likely replace with plenty of alternatives from the region or outside and at the expense of Washington’s influence. The geographical access that Egypt has to the Red Sea and the Gulf waters is something that has enticed global powers throughout history, and will prompt U.S. rivals to jump in if Washington withdraws. The problem that the Obama administration faces today in Cairo is not its military engagement but rather the lack of a diplomatic one.
Washington should not wait for a crisis to erupt in Egypt to start paying attention to it, let alone send mixed messages and competing political players to the scene. There were many missed opportunities under Mursi where the U.S. engagement and criticism were not in sync with the street or clear enough in their objective. Kerry, for his part, has been focused for months on the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, an issue that carries less urgency and far less regional repercussions in the short-term for the Middle East.
The U.S. cannot afford taking its eye off the ball in Cairo. Working towards an inclusive transition is in Washington’s national security interest, and for that, all elements of public, economic and regional diplomacy should be employed.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam