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US lies low on Egypt, acting behind the scenes. Is that approach wise?

Obama and administration officials have remained relatively quiet, at least in public, as turmoil revived in Egypt and a new president was elected. Tougher communication is likely going on behind the scenes, some analysts say.

By Staff writer / June 25, 2012



Washington

Egypt’s election of an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood in its first free presidential elections is further evidence of the challenges that dramatic change in a crucial country like Egypt present to the United States.

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The election of Mohamed Morsi, a US-educated engineer, makes the hard place the Obama administration was already in as a result of Egypt’s revolution that much tighter. The stark dilemmas the US faces may explain why President Obama – he of Cairo speech, 2009, fame – and other administration officials have remained relatively quiet on Egypt during recent weeks.

Here are just two examples of the dilemmas the US faces. One, Mr. Morsi’s past offers some worrisome tendencies, including support for antireligious-minority and antiwomen policies, but how can the US express its concerns without sounding critical of Egyptians’ democratically expressed preference? Two, how far ought the US go in criticizing the Egyptian military’s power grab prior to the announcement of Morsi’s triumph, when the military there may be the best last guarantor of critical US interests, including preservation of the Egypt-Israel peace accords?

IN PICTURES: Turmoil in Egypt

The realities that such vexing dilemmas won't be resolved any time soon, and that any overly emphatic public expression of official US opinion on Egyptian events could easily backfire, explain the administration’s reticence on Egypt, some regional analysts say.

“What the US is engaged in is a complex private effort to protect regional security interests and maintain relations with the military and the intelligence apparatus … even as the message is delivered and reinforced as events unfold of uncompromising support for democratic change,” says Brian Katulis, a Middle East specialist at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “It’s a complicated dance,” he adds, “that will go on for the rest of the year and beyond that.”

Mr. Obama called Morsi Sunday night to congratulate him and express US support for "Egypt's transition to democracy." According to a White House statement on the phone call, Morsi welcomed US support.

An effort to avoid the appearance of heavy-handed interference in Egypt’s internal affairs helps explain the careful, measured – and noticeably infrequent – public commentary from American officials. “They [in the administration] have proceeded as they have at least in part out of a desire to make sure that no one thinks that we think this is about us,” says Mr. Katulis.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton responded to the military’s steps earlier this month to amass for itself a long list of powers by warning that "there can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people." 

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