Egypt: Violence increases pressure on Obama to 'pick sides'

Obama has said the US is 'not aligned with' any side in the strife in Egypt, but with growing Egyptian fears their country could slip into civil war, the pressure to abandon US neutrality mounts.

Courtesy of Pete Souza/White House/AP
President Obama meeting with members of his national security team to discuss the situation in Egypt in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, July 3. The Obama administration is treading carefully after Egypt's military overthrew its president, last Wednesday, and only supports the Egyptian people's aspirations for democracy and prosperity.

The violence that flared in Cairo Monday morning, leaving dozens of supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi dead, exposes a deepening and destabilizing power vacuum in Egypt that is likely to make the Obama administration’s “neutral” stance toward Egypt’s political factions increasingly difficult to maintain.

President Obama says the US is “not aligned with” anyone in Egypt’s political upheaval in the aftermath of Mr. Morsi’s removal from power by the military last Wednesday, and only supports the Egyptian people’s aspirations for democracy and prosperity.

The US is reportedly urging all of Egypt’s principal political movements, including Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, to participate in political negotiations and in new presidential and parliamentary elections – which as of yet have no date.

But after Monday’s violence outside a mosque in Cairo – which the Muslim Brotherhood deemed a “massacre” of praying individuals by the military – any participation by Islamist forces in post-Morsi talks looks increasingly remote. The Brotherhood has begun calling for an “uprising,” and the Islamist Nour party that had originally agreed to participate in negotiations to name new civilian leaders has pulled out.

The military insisted that Monday’s violence occurred after protesters in the pro-Morsi crowd first fired on soldiers.

Moreover, the continuing inability of Egyptian authorities to name an interim vice-president and prime minister is only hardening the perspective of the Brotherhood and its supporters, who say that claims of a civilian authority being in place are a sham.

The military named an interim president, Adly Mansour, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, shortly after ousting Morsi, but events since then have only sharpened doubts about the relatively unknown jurist’s ability to lead over an undefined period until elections can be held.

With lines hardening between Egyptians who say the military is calling the shots in Egypt (thus proving that it was indeed a military coup that removed Morsi from power) and those who insist that the military acted to save the country’s fledgling democracy, more Egyptians are whispering the fear that their country could slip into civil war.

Worsening violence and any signs of increased instability in Egypt – the Arab world’s largest country and Washington’s most important Arab partner – will increase pressure on Mr. Obama to shift from “neutral” to taking sides in Egypt’s turmoil.

So far much of the focus in terms of US policy has been on the $1.6 billion in annual aid the US gives Egypt – most of it going to the military. The Obama administration has said little about the aid – other than to avoid using the word “coup” to describe the military’s action against Morsi, since US law specifically rules out continuing aid to a country where a military coup has removed a democratically elected leader.

But members of Congress have not been so reticent. On Sunday Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona stated that under the circumstances the US has no choice but to suspend aid to Egypt.

Taking an opposing view, Senator McCain’s fellow Republican, Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said that coup or no coup, Egypt is too important for the US to consider cutting off aid.

“We should continue to support the military, the one stabilizing force in Egypt that I think can tamper down the political feuding that you’re seeing going on now,” Representative Rogers said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.

Rogers, who said Morsi was ousted because he was attempting to “Islamize” Egypt in a manner opposed by Egyptians, acknowledged that the question of whether US aid to Egypt should be suspended is open to debate. He said it is Obama’s job to go to Congress and make the case for maintaining aid to a key partner.

Rogers said there is “a great case to be made” for continuing aid to Egypt, but he said it’s up to the administration to weigh in on a roiling congressional debate.

“The president should come to Congress and make the case,” he said.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.