On Monday evening, drama was brewing, with the Daily Beast report suggesting that the U.S. administration, after all this talk on “reviewing the military aid” to Egypt, actually secretly suspended it. Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy’s office was behind the story — but the White House was quick to deny it. Deputy spokesman Josh Earnest declared that the aid wasn’t cut off. The review of the relationship with Egypt, including the aid, ordered by President Obama in July, is ongoing, he said, and the reports “are not accurate.”
“You are not turning assistance on and off like a faucet, it’s provided periodically,” he explained. Which means nothing really changed, at least insofar as the official position of the Obama administration is concerned. The government is continuing its efforts not to make any definitions that will put it in a box.
As the administration’s spokespeople repeatedly explained since the ousting of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, the situation is complicated. Like the Egyptian people themselves, the Obama administration is stuck with two antagonists, neither of which proved to be a champion of democratic values and human rights: the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood.
No doubt, for various reasons it was more convenient for the U.S. to talk to the military, albeit officially, it does not support either side and speaks to all players. The question is, does anyone listen? Apparently, the brutal police assault on Aug. 14 on pro-Muslim Brotherhood camps that left scores of protesters dead, proved again that whatever leverage the U.S. administration had with the interim government has been eroded to the point of that government ignoring America’s call to prevent violence and pursue an inclusive transition process towards new elections. The Gulf countries’ pledge of $12 billion in aid to Egypt, compared to the American $1.3 billion, raised further questions — Are other allies trying to undermine U.S. policy?
At this point, with the U.S. public growing visibly weary of recurring Middle Eastern crises, one could ask, Why does President Obama need to get involved at all? The new Pew Research Center poll has shown 51 percent of Americans want foreign aid to Egypt to be cut off, 26 percent prefer to see it transferred, 23 percent do not know. Rasmussen Reports’ national survey revealed that 54 percent do not want the aid continued, 18 percent would rather see it reaching its goal, and 27 percent are undecided. Other polls, similar to the case of the Syrian crisis, indicated the American people are not interested in the U.S.’ engagement in this mess.
Obama administration critics say indecision makes the U.S. weaker, erodes its influence and shows the Egyptian military they can do whatever they want. When Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chair of the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, renewed last week her call to condition the aid to Egypt, she said: “American taxpayer dollars are not an entitlement for countries to do with as they please. This is the only leverage we have left over the government of Egypt and the Egyptian military. By failing to act decisively before, during and after the Morsi era, we have lost nearly all credibility — and therefore leverage — in Egypt.”
But making decisions in this case means delving deep into the domestic affairs of Egypt, and yes, taking sides, neither of which is a good choice — and the “Egyptian people” that the U.S. administration claims to support, are angry, divided and confused.
This week, at the White House briefing, a spokesman said the possible release of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is an internal Egyptian legal matter — but the U.S. administration did call for the immediate release of those detained in politically motivated cases — such as the more recent ousted leader Morsi. Needless to say, both camps in Egypt are not happy with the U.S., seeing its de-facto support for the other side.
As the crisis drags on, pressure on the Obama administration will mount. Symbolic steps, such as the cancelation of the joint military exercise next month, do not seem terribly effective — would the Egyptian army have had the time to conduct them anyway, given the circumstances? Will suspending aid actually change anything, with most of it — for FY 2013 — already having been allocated, except for angering the Egyptian army leaders and possibly harming the military cooperation with Israel?
Dr. Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said that the position of Israel and its allies, so far, has been to support the continuation of aid, with the intent of maintaining U.S. leverage in Egypt. “If aid is never cut, under any circumstances, it’s hard to see how much leverage it actually grants the U.S.,” he explained. “A short-term suspension in aid, if done while maintaining open channels to the Egyptian military, would probably not harm U.S. or Israeli interests that much, though the risk exists of alienating the military, which could have serious repercussions for Israel in terms of military cooperation around the border and in Gaza.”
Professor Ebrahim Moosa from Duke University thinks that the U.S. might have sacrificed the nascent Egyptian democracy to get back to deal with the more convenient military rule — even if it places a civilian as its front man. The willingness to pursue the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, he thinks, might have been another factor in the late and weak reaction of the U.S. administration to the bloodshed in Egypt. Had it been stronger, Moosa is confident there wouldn’t have been close to 1,000 killed. “Morsi made his mistakes and he wasn’t perfect, but they need to reinstate him as president until the next, early elections,” he said. “Under Morsi, we didn’t have hundreds of dead.”
Meanwhile, as if the situation wasn’t bad enough, another complication was added, with Turkey lining up against Egypt’s military. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday accused Israel of being “behind the coup in Egypt.” The White House slammed the remarks. “Suggesting that Israel is somehow responsible for recent events in Egypt is offensive, unsubstantiated and wrong,” deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said on Tuesday.
Several lawmakers joined the condemnation, and the ADL, in a letter to the Turkish leader, voiced its concern that the accusations “resembled the centuries-old anti-Semitic myth of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to control foreign governments.”
This time, the Obama administration acted faster than it had in the Egyptian crisis — but it didn’t change the fact that Washington’s attempt to “reset” Ankara-Jerusalem relations now seems null and void.