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Egypt unrest tests Obama's Arab Spring philosophy

President Barack Obama's response to political unrest in the Middle East has been to state support for representative governments, but to limit the US involvement. The ousting of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has challenged Obama's approach.

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However, the US relationship with Egypt has long required Washington to ignore the country's repressive politics in exchange for regional stability. For 30 years, the US 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.

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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 US has consistently voiced support for the popular uprisings and in some cases demanded that autocratic leaders leave power. In Libya, the US joined with allies to set up a no-fly zone to help opposition forces oust longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. And in Syria, the US 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 US 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 US-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 US 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 Morsi's ouster, US officials were worried that the Egyptian leader fit into that category. A senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi 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 Morsi 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 Morsi's Islamist constitution and hold free elections next year.

Follow Julie Pace on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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