A massacre in Cairo and a failure of US diplomacy in Egypt

The US strained mightily to avoid calling Morsi's ouster a coup and to continue military aid. Egypt's military answered back today.

Manu Brabo/AP
Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi run from Egyptian security forces firing towards them during clashes in Cairo's Nasr City district, Egypt, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.

Since the military coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi from the Egyptian presidency on July 3, the Obama administration has bent over backwards not to call it a "coup."

The reasoning behind this decision was that Egypt's military is the most powerful force in the country and that alienating and punishing them for their action would both undercut US influence and create the conditions for a broad military crackdown. And, besides, the massive protests against Mr. Morsi leading up to him being deposed and arrested showed he couldn't lead or stabilize the country any more himself.

So while principled talk about "democracy" and getting militaries out of politics is one thing, the world of realpolitik is something else. While emissaries from Obama danced around the "coup" question, the US government refused to announce a cut off in the Egyptian military's $1.3 billion annual subsidy, and continually urged restraint and reconciliation.

These decisions led to odd rhetorical constructions from the US government, as when State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki was pressed last week on whether the Obama administration thought Egypt's military had carried out a coup. "We have determined that we do not need to make a determination," she said.

Today, the military and Gen. Abdel Fatah Sisi, delivered the military's own determination: We're going ahead and doing it our way.

This morning Obama White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said that the US is opposed to the state of emergency declared by Egypt's military, which gives it sweeping powers, much as a state of emergency after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 formed the backbone of the military-backed Mubarak dictatorship that prevailed until 2011. Mr. Earnest said the US believes today's actions will make achieving "stability" more difficult. He also said that the US is not ready to determine whether Egypt has had a military coup. He said Egypt's interim rulers have promised a swift creation of a democracy and "it's a promise we're going to encourage them to keep."

Whether calling the coup by its proper name earlier would have changed anything is now an academic debate. It doesn't really matter now. A cycle of violence, with the military calling the shots, is all but assured for the foreseeable future. Elections, let alone free and fair ones, this year? Not likely to happen. Forming a national consensus on a revised constitution any time soon? Also hard to imagine.

The illusion of US influence over Egypt's military – which is pursuing what it sees as its own and its nation's interests – was brought home by the visit of Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham to Cairo last week in which they met with the top brass and sought to act as mediators between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sen. McCain appeared to recognize the risk of severe destabilization if the military sought to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood entirely from Egyptian politics. In February 2011, he was staunchly opposed to a political role for the Brothers. "I think they are a radical group that first of all supports sharia law; that in itself is anti-democratic – at least as far as women are concerned. They have been involved with other terrorist organizations and I believe that they should be specifically excluded from any transition government," he said then.

But on his visit to Cairo last week he expressed a different opinion. "We believe they should treat each other with respect. We also urge the release of political prisoners. We also urge strongly a national dialogue, a national dialogue that is inclusive for parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.

That dialogue will now come, if it comes at all, amid an atmosphere of fury and distrust. US influence with the military has proven negligible so far. The Muslim Brotherhood now views the US claims about supporting democracy as hypocritical, since it stood by as an elected president was ousted. And the Brotherhood's secular-leaning political opponents are angry at the failure of the US to provide full-throated backing to the military and American willingness to work with Morsi when he was Egypt's elected president.

It's a truism that you can't please everybody. But in the case of Egypt, the US has pleased precisely no one. And the Arab world's most populous country is heading into a period of turmoil likely to dwarf the troubles of the past few years.

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