As protests roil Egypt's streets, US has few good policy options

Egypt's military once again holds the country's political future in its hands.

Hassan Ammar/AP
Demonstrators against Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Morsi chant slogans during a protest by the presidential palace in Cairo, Friday, July 26. Political allies of Egypt's military lined up behind its call for huge rallies Friday to show support for the country's top general, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, pushing toward a collision with Islamist opponents who are also rallying to demand the return of Morsi.

The Senate Foreign Relations committee heard testimony yesterday on what's going on in Egypt and what the US should do about it – if anything.The broad takeaway from the testimony from three Egypt watchers: the US has little leverage to shape events in Egypt, and is unlikely to use what leverage it has.

The state of play in Egypt is that the results of all the democratic elections held since Hosni Mubarak was deposed in February 2011 have been overturned, and an interim government installed by the military is running the show. President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood has been in military detention since his ouster on July 3, and political passions at street level are at a dangerous pitch. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the head of the army, has called for mass demonstrations Friday in support of the military and issued thinly veiled threats to the Brotherhood, who have protested daily since Morsi's removal from power.

Today, the lack of US influence over unfolding events in the Arab world's largest country is being amply demonstrated. Even as the military has called for mass demonstrations in its support, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi are in turn out on the streets demanding he be returned.

In the 30 months since Hosni Mubarak's ouster by the same military that removed Morsi, US policy toward the country has been adrift. Mubarak, and President Sadat before him, were the kinds of military-backed autocrats the US preferred to do business with during the cold war. They could be relied on to keep the Suez Canal open to US warships, maintain the peace with Israel, and promptly consult with US officials on security matters. A steady subsidy for the Egyptian military of more than $1 billion for decades helped cement the friendship, and the US generally looked the other way on human rights abuses inside the country.

So it was hardly surprising that when the mass protests erupted against Mubarak in January 2011 that the US was hesitant to withdraw support from the dictatorship and was the target of Tahrir Square's ire. After Mubarak was pushed out, the Obama administration backed Egypt's transition and sought to work with Morsi when he won the presidency in 2012. That too, ended up drawing many Egyptian's ire. And while the US was strangely passive in the face of criminal proceedings brought by Egypt against a number of NGO workers working on US-funded democracy programs – one of them the son of Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood – it kept the flow of military aid unchecked.

The US response to Egypt's military coup? The same. The Obama administration has played with semantics to avoid calling the coup by its proper name, since that would have required the military aid to be cut, under laws set by Congress. That's infuriated the Muslim Brotherhood's supporters, who say the US government's pledge to support democracy rings hollow. Today, Egypt's interim government ordered Morsi detained for a further 15 days while he is investigated for the crime of espionage – specifically colluding with Hamas, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, to attack police stations and prisons during the uprising against Mubarak.

While Egypt has grown more chaotic and divided, the US has come to rely as much on its relationship with Egyptian generals like Sisi as much as it ever has. Army chief Sisi called for the mass pro-military demonstrations today while also issuing veiled threats about a crackdown on "terrorism" that appears to indicate further moves against the Brotherhood, which remains the largest grass-roots organization in the country. 

'Don't freeze out the Brotherhood'

The three experts who gave testimony on Egypt yesterday – former Ambassador to Egypt and Israel Daniel Kurtzner, former special envoy for the Middle East in the Clinton years Dennis Ross, and Michelle Dunne, who held a variety of posts at the State Department focusing on the region and who is now a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University – all seemed in agreement that the US has few good options in Egypt now, and warned that freezing the Muslim Brotherhood out of political life could lead to a catastrophe. 

"If you exclude what is an important social force within Egypt then this is a prescription for trouble," Mr. Ross told the hearing. He and his two colleagues all argued that Egypt is desperately in need of a reconciliation process while acknowledging that the enormous polarization at the moment will make that difficult.

Said Mr. Kurtzer: "Right now today [the Muslim Brotherhood] have adopted tactics that are confronting the authorities and they have decided that that's the best way to build the support back that they used to have. If they decide not to engage in a national reconciliation process that's real ... they could also decide to engage in an insurgency ... this is a region where weapons are easy to come by and jihadists are easy to come by, they cross borders at will."

While both Ross and Ms. Dunne said the deposal of Morsi was a coup, Kurtzer declined to call it that. And both Kurtzer and Ross argued that the US should ignore the law that calls for military aid to be cut.

“I am afraid that if we were to cut off our assistance at this point, the effect would be to lose the link we have with the military. But we would also find a backlash among the Egyptian public," Ross said. "The Egyptian public would look at this as an American effort to dictate to them against the popular will.”

Aid will flow

While some senators were concerned that this undermines US credibility – with John McCain musing how the US can preach the rule of law to others while ignoring it at home and Rand Paul questioning the wisdom of a blank check for Egypt's military – the administration has made it clear the aid will flow. While it delayed the delivery of F-16s to Egypt this week to send a signal of displeasure, it told lawmakers yesterday that it won't declare the coup a coup and is determined to keep money and weapons flowing to Egypt.

Essentially, that means the US has taken its strongest bargaining chip off the table as the future of Egypt is decided, with the generals looming large behind the scenes. Their presence, and relatively free hand to act, has made them the most powerful force in determining Egypt's future.

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