The withdrawal of support for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi by President Obama is the latest bit of bad news for Egypt's leader and the Muslim Brotherhood movement that catapulted him to power as the country's first freely elected head of state.
The US hasn't publicly abandoned Mr. Morsi, whom the State Department has repeatedly hailed as a democratically elected leader. But via anonymous spokesmen it's done everything but, and the distancing has come in record time – just three days since mass protests broke out.
When protests against President Hosni Mubarak broke out in January 2011, the US struggled mightily to hold back the tide. On day two, Vice President Joe Biden famously insisted that Mubarak was no dictator (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) and that he should remain in office. It was only on day five that Obama's people began muttering about the need for "reform" and an unspecified "orderly transition" of some sort. Only on day 17, when Mubarak's fate was written, did the administration publicly say that Mubarak must go.
But Obama and his aides have been learning on the job since 2011 and it is, after all, a new Middle East. They now recognize that protests the size of those that broke out on June 30 against Morsi have a momentum of their own. (The video just below of anti-Morsi protesters was shot and released by a member of the Egyptian military, speaking volumes.) The experience of once trying – and failing – to hold back the tide is a wonderful teacher.
And besides, the US is far less invested in Morsi. Mubarak was America's man in Cairo for over 30 years. Morsi, in power for less than a year and member of a movement that is ultimately hostile to US regional objectives, doesn't have anywhere near that bank of goodwill.
While the Obama administration has spent much of the past year rah-rahing about Egypt's emerging "democracy" and received reasonable cooperation from Morsi on Israel, it now must look at Morsi in much the same way as Egypt's generals: This is a guy who can't hold up his end of the bargain.
CNN reports, citing a "senior official" saying that Obama's people have told Morsi there should be new elections soon. (Note: When DC-based reporters provide this kind of anonymity, the statement usually is not coming from a leaking official, but from an official approved to speak who maintains deniability for the administration, and avoids accountability for their own words, by being "off the record.")
That comes a day after Egypt's senior generals dictated new terms to their nominal boss: Restore stability to Egypt by end of business Wednesday, or we'll step in and do it for you. Morsi and the Brothers must feel the walls are closing in a bit, as a coalition of democracy protesters, old Mubarak stalwarts, and the military hierarchy are trying to reset the rules in Egypt.
To be sure, anonymous US officials are also warning against an overt coup by Egypt's generals – but, in some ways, the coup has already taken place. The Egyptian generals have gone on record ordering the civilian president around, and laid out consequences for failure that they have the power to enforce. Imagine if the joint chiefs of staff issued an ultimatum to Obama.
And consider this quote from one of CNN's anonymous officials:
"As much as we appreciate [the Egyptian military's] statement that they intend to protect the Egyptian people, they need to be careful about how they inject themselves into the situation. We are telling them that playing a role with their ultimatum to get the two sides together is completely appropriate, but anything that looks like a military takeover is walking a very thin line."
Notice the concern for appearances and the blanket approval of direct military-meddling in Egypt's politics as "completely appropriate." The Obama administration at this point is not worried about legal niceties or an obsession with civilian control of the military in Egypt. The country's economy continues to deteriorate and its civilian politics, for a variety of reasons over the past two years, have failed.
The Constitution that Morsi and the Brotherhood rammed through has divided Egypt and infuriated the opposition.
While Morsi may try to continue to cling to his "democratic mandate" from a narrow election victory last year, he seems no more able to credibly govern at this point than Mubarak was after Jan. 25, 2011. How long it will take to ease him from his current perch is far from certain.
But the game is starting to move very quickly.