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

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.

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?

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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." 

Then last week she said it was “imperative” that the military turn over power to “the legitimate winner” of the presidential election, and she described as “clearly worrying” military actions that threaten to “subvert constitutional authority.”

But those comments, which never went beyond an expression of concern to a threat of potential punitive actions, suggest to some analysts that the tougher communication is going on behind the scenes.

“I’d say we can assume that these implicit warnings are being taken to another level in private, as the administration conveys its message to a wide variety of actors in the Egyptian political arena,” says Wayne White, a former State Department policy planning official who is now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington. 

Among the conversations that Mr. White, who has long experience working in Egypt, can imagine, is one advising the military “not to provoke a destabilizing uprising over the actions they’ve announced,” he says, and another reminding Morsi and the Brotherhood “that they will be held to their promises” to respect Egypt’s democratic order and govern for all Egyptians.

“The most emphatic message to every segment of Egypt’s new power structure,” White adds, “is probably this: that Egypt be returned to some measure of normalcy as soon as possible, both politically and economically.”

Katulis of the Center for American Progress says he believes the administration has been “judicious” in its meting out of public statements on Egypt, especially given the fast-changing conditions and rapid succession of momentous events. Noting that to a large degree any threats to US interests have yet to be carried out, Katulis says US officials are “keeping their powder dry until somebody does something that warrants some targeted action.”

An example White gives of something that would move the US beyond cautious words to action would be “the military announcing there will be no parliamentary elections for two years” to replace the parliament recently dismissed by Egypt’s top court. “That’s the time when [the US] would lower the boom on the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces],” White says.

But some experts say such a scenario, in which the US reacts to actions Egyptian authorities have already taken, underscores why the administration should have been more forceful with Egypt in recent months, essentially being “prescriptive” in ways that State Department officials said the US was determined not to be.

“The administration should have been much more proactive, making a clear statement of what it expects of Egypt and laying out how the election and different actions by the country’s powers would affect US-Egypt relations,” says Eric Trager, an Egypt expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Trager, who was interviewed by phone from Egypt, says most Egyptians see the US behind everything that happens (and things that don’t happen, for that matter) in their country anyway, so it wouldn’t have made much difference for the administration to state publicly what it expected of Egypt’s new leaders.

Instead of “bromides” about “democratic rule and fair elections,” he says, the US should have gone public with its expectations. “That way when relations between the US and Morsi sour, there’s something to fall back on,” Trager says, “something to point to and explain why that’s happening.”

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