Military ouster of Egypt's Morsi: US position goes from worse to bad

Before the Egyptian military ousted President Morsi, the US was caught between a democratically elected leader and the democratic forces seeking his removal. But it's still in a tight spot.

Khalil Hamra/AP
Opponents of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi wave national flags during a protest outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday.

The ouster of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi by the country’s powerful military releases the United States from the delicate spot it found itself in before Wednesday’s events: caught between a democratically elected leader and the democratic forces seeking his removal.

But the relief is minimal.

The US will still face hard questions over how to respond to a military coup in a country that is a key Middle East partner and a major recipient of US military aid.

The days ahead are likely to remain agitated and tense in Egypt, and the US will almost certainly face criticism from Mr. Morsi’s supporters, who will say the US acquiesced to the illegal removal of an elected leader who had just marked the first year of a four-year term.

The Egyptian military acted to deflect accusations that the manner in which it removed Morsi amounted to a coup. While the military suspended the Morsi-era constitution, the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian armed forces, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, told Egyptians in a televised address Wednesday night that the chief justice of Egypt’s constitutional court – and not a military leader – would fill the presidency until new presidential elections can be held.

The new interim president is to be sworn in Thursday.

The military said it acted in the “public service” not just to end the country’s chaotic political crisis but to implement a “roadmap to democracy” that would have the support of Egypt’s political factions and foster the “reconciliation” that Morsi failed to promote, General Sissi said. Although he did not mention Morsi by name, Sissi said the president had “responded with negativity” up to the last minute to the military’s demands for a resolution of the political crisis.

The Egyptian military also sought to assure the United States, in a phone call to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, that it has no interest in holding onto power.

As Egypt’s turmoil reached a crescendo in recent days, the US attempted to appear neutral among the dueling parties, with both the White House and the State Department emphasizing that “we don’t take sides” and calling on all factions to “engage with each other” and find a nonviolent political solution to their differences.

But by Wednesday afternoon, with events in Cairo moving fast and Morsi’s ouster looking likely, US officials began shifting their stance. At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki reminded reports that democracy is about more than elections. And she spoke critically of Morsi over what she said was his failure to “take steps” to address Egyptians’ concerns – even as she held her fire toward the military.

Morsi’s televised speech Tuesday, in which he defiantly refused to meet protesters’ demands and vowed never to step down, was a particular disappointment to the US, Ms. Psaki said. "He had the opportunity [in the speech] to lay out certain steps" to address the crisis, she said, "and he didn't take the opportunity to do that."

Thousands of Egyptians celebrated publicly Wednesday night, but it was unclear what path Morsi’s many supporters planned to take.

Meanwhile, the US military was preparing for the worst in Egypt, dispatching part of a Marine crisis response team stationed in Spain to Sigonella, Italy, to shorten the team’s distance from Egypt in case its intervention was needed. The United States also ordered the evacuation of its embassy in Cairo, news reports said.

In May, the US quietly approved the annual $1.3 billion in US military aid to Egypt, despite qualms over progress in the country’s democratization process, and it seems unlikely to suspend that aid even after a coup. The Egyptian military has close ties to the Pentagon, and the emphasis Wednesday on civilian leaders and a “roadmap” to democracy appears likely to blunt any criticism in Washington.

Now that Morsi is out the US is likely to insist that it continues to take no sides and only supports “the Egyptian people,” some regional analysts say.

“They’ll continue trying to maintain this idea of a neutral position because they want to avoid looking like they are intervening in Egypt’s politics,” say James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

But the US was already suffering from a perception among Egyptians opposed to Morsi and the increasingly repressive actions of his Muslim Brotherhood party that it had “tilted” in Morsi’s favor, Mr. Phillips says. And he says it will take more forceful pronouncements from Washington in favor of a democratic transition – at least – to sway a public dubious of US support.

“After having given the impression that we were shoring up the Muslim Brotherhood,” Phillips says, “I would welcome even an even-handed statement that indicates we are distancing ourselves from the political forces that aren’t really interested in building a democracy in Egypt.”

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