Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Timeline: the awkward dance of Obama and Morsi

The Obama administration fell into familiar patterns with Hosni Mubarak's successor.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
Protesters against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi wave national flags in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 3. The Egyptian president's national security adviser said on Wednesday that a 'military coup' was under way and army and police violence was expected to remove pro-Morsi demonstrators.

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi is the only politician in the country who has any sort of a democratic mandate, having won a tight presidential race last year. But today, it's hard to imagine him surviving much longer – or to see that so-called mandate as worth much anymore.

The politically powerful army has issued an ultimatum, vast crowds calling for his downfall continue to seethe around the presidential palace in Cairo, and in a year he has gone from a virtual unknown in Egypt's politics to its most divisive figure.

While his election was hailed as a democratic victory in many quarters, the fact is that Egypt has failed so far in its experiment to build a more inclusive brand of governance since the long-standing military dictatorship ended in Feb. 2011. An elected parliament was dissolved by court order, and while Morsi converted the Shura Council – a ceremonial upper house that only 7 percent of Egyptians turned out to vote for – into a legislature, that has fooled no one. The body has no popular support and in practice has been used to do whatever Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood he hails from want.

Since Morsi's election, the US has been oddly supportive of Morsi, muted in its criticism even when his government has prosecuted American NGO workers dispatched to Egypt to work on democracy promotion. Though the message of the Obama administration this week has been that "democracy" is about far more than elections, for much of the past year it has given the opposite impression.

While the fall of Mubarak and events across the region since late 2010 have made it clear that the old ways of doing business in the Middle East are no longer workable, the US has continued to fall back on old positions and postures as it gropes for something resembling a coherent policy. On Jan. 25, 2011 as Egyptians poured into the streets, signalling the final days for the dictatorship, then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted there was nothing to see. "Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable," she said then.

Below is a timeline of statements and actions from the administration on President Morsi and Egypt's transition, which until very recently have carried the same whistling past the graveyard flavor of Ms. Clinton's 2011 remark. 

July 2:

In "anonymous" remarks senior Obama administration officials began backing away from Morsi, saying that Obama has urged the president to hold new elections "soon."

July 1:

“Our commitment to Egypt has never been around any particular individual or party,” Obama said on a trip to Tanzania. “Our commitment has been to a process.... The U.S. government’s attitude has been, we would deal with a democratically elected government,” said Obama. “Democracy is not just about elections — it’s also about, how are you working with an opposition.”

June 18: US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson delivered a speech in Cairo to, she said, "set the record straight" on America's relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly the popular conspiracy theory that the US had somehow engineered Morsi's rise to power. But her insistence that the elected president must be respected, dismissal of street protests as useful or appropriate, and failure to offer any criticism of either Morsi or the Brotherhood enraged Morsi's opponents. "This is the government that you and your fellow citizens elected. Even if you voted for others, I don’t think the elected nature of this government is seriously in doubt," she said. The speech also convinced critics that the US was indeed favoring the Brothers. "Some say that street action will produce better results than elections. To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical," she said.

Ms. Patterson also put the US firmly in the camp of "stability" over change in her speech, mirroring US policies in Egypt and across the region for decades. "Egypt needs stability to get its economic house in order, and more violence on the streets will do little more than add new names to the lists of martyrs. Instead, I recommend Egyptians get organized. Join or start a political party that reflects your values and aspirations. Egyptians need to know a better path forward. This will take time. You will have to roll up your sleeves and work hard. Progress will be slow and you often will feel frustrated. But there is no other way." She failed to mention the guilty verdicts for democracy NGO workers just a few weeks before.

June 4: Egypt sentenced 43 Egyptians and foreigners, some of them Americans, to jail for the crime of working with democracy promotion NGOs (among them the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which receive most of their funding from the US government). Secretary of State John Kerry said the US "is deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences" and that the verdict was "contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy." He went on to "urge the Government of Egypt to work with civic groups as they respond to the Egyptian people’s aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt’s new constitution."

May 10: The Obama administration issues a waiver on military funding to Egypt, sidestepping restrictions imposed by Congress, which had sought to condition delivery of $1.3 billion in military aid on progress on human rights and democracy. Angry legislators said there was no way Egypt could have passed the certification process.

April 3: US comedian Jon Stewart, a friend of Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian comic who has patterned a wildly popular satirical TV show after Stewart's The Daily Show, did a bit on Morsi after the government arrested and questioned Youssef for the crime of "insulting religion" and President Morsi. Stewart's clip included video of Morsi from 2010 describing Jews as descended from apes and pigs and he made the point that the president hadn't been hauled up on "defamation of religion" charges. The US Embassy Cairo Twitter feed shared a link to the Stewart clip, writing "Video @TheDailyShow with Jon Stewart on @DrBassemYoussef." Morsi was furious and Ambassador Patterson responded by having the embassy Twitter account briefly suspended and deleted the offending tweet

December 6, 2012: Alarmed by mass protests, which led to at least five deaths, over the constitution then being rushed to completion by Morsi and his aides, Obama called Morsi. A White House summary of the call reads: 

President Obama called President Morsi today to express his deep concern about the deaths and injuries of protesters in Egypt. The President emphasized that all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable. He welcomed President Morsi’s call for a dialogue with the opposition but stressed that such a dialogue should occur without preconditions. The President noted that the United States has also urged opposition leaders to join in this dialogue without preconditions. He reiterated the United States’ continued support for the Egyptian people and their transition to a democracy that respects the rights of all Egyptians. The President underscored that it is essential for Egyptian leaders across the political spectrum to put aside their differences and come together to agree on a path that will move Egypt forward.

Sept 13, 2012: In a Telemundo interview a day after a mob stormed the US Embassy in Cairo (at the same time as the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya) Obama said of Egypt: "I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy ... they were democratically elected. I think we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident, to see how they respond to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel.... What we’ve seen is that in some cases, they’ve said the right things and taken the right steps. In others, how they’ve responded to other events may not be aligned with some of our interests, so I think it’s still a work in progress." A White House spokesman soon clarified: "'Ally’ is a legal term of art. We don’t have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt like we do with our NATO allies. But as the President has said, Egypt is [a] long-standing and close partner of the United States, and we have built on that foundation by supporting Egypt’s transition to democracy and working with the new government."

June 24, 2012: Obama calls to congratulate Morsi on his victory. A White House summary of the conversation said Obama "underscored that the United States will continue to support Egypt’s transition to democracy and stand by the Egyptian people as they fulfill the promise of their revolution.... [Obama] emphasized his interest in working together with President-elect Morsi, on the basis of mutual respect, to advance the many shared interests between Egypt and the United States."

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.