It is high time for the US administrations to adjust to the fact that there are more Middle Eastern states that merit as much attention as Israel, which The Washington Post, still controlled by its old proprietor, described as “the United States’ strongest ally in the region”.
When the first elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown on July 3, the Obama administration’s first public comment expressed its concern about whether this would affect Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, signed in 1979. Egypt was the first Arab country to do so.
This limited US focus avoided any reprimand of Israel for its continued occupation of Palestinian territories and its illegal building of more than 500 settlements there, and of a high wall that bars some Palestinians from reaching significant parts of their homeland.
There was no mention of the effects of the Egyptian upheaval elsewhere in the region.
Washington seemed to be walking a thin line right from the start. It refused to denounce Morsi’s overthrow as a “coup”, so as not to curtail its significant financial aid — to the tune of $1.5 million a year to the Egyptian military — since US congressional legislation bans aid to coup leaders.
Similarly, the Obama administration refrained from castigating Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood for monopolising power as part of the new regime. This chagrined some senior Egyptian officers who had failed to convince Morsi to backtrack from his shortsighted approach, already the focus of millions of Egyptians who were seeking the president’s resignation because of his ill-considered actions.
The emerging new military leaders, led by General Abdul Fattah Al Sisi, seemed wily, harshly confronting the pro-Morsi demonstrators from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the reason for some 100 deaths one night last week.
Disappointingly, they seemed to be inching very slowly towards establishing a democratic regime, although they got an unexpected pat on the back from US Secretary of State John Kerry who had earlier declared that they were “restoring democracy”.
Another shot in the arm came when Sisi and Vice President Mohammed El Baradei, interviewed extensively in The Washington Post last Sunday, set the record straight. An op-ed column in the same paper by Ahmed Maher, founder of the Egyptian April 6 Youth Movement, the following day, challenged some of their views, casting a long shadow on the new regime.
Two powerful American Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey O. Graham, stepped into the act, arriving in Cairo apparently at the urging of President Barack Obama. The American president was hoping that they would help work out some rapprochement between the new Egyptian leadership and its civilian Cabinet, and the ostracised Muslim Brotherhood, which would ultimately lead to Morsi’s release; he has been under lock in an undisclosed place since his ouster on July 3. Regrettably, nothing seemed immediately achievable as both returned home empty handed last Tuesday, warning that the US may cut off its financial assistance.
In the interview with The Washington Post, Sisi sharply criticised the Obama administration for disregarding the Egyptian “popular will”, evident in the massive demonstrations involving millions of Egyptians, and for failing to provide sufficient support amid threats of civil war.
Baradei insisted in the Post interview that the Egyptian government wanted to “immediately” have a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood to “understand that Morsi had failed” — a point acknowledged by the Obama administration. But, he continued, “that does not mean that the Brotherhood should be excluded in any way. They should be part of the political process; they should continue to participate in the rewriting of the constitution, in running for parliamentary elections and presidential elections”.
Sadly, this deadlock came at a time when Egypt — the Muslim world — was celebrating Eid Al Fitr, marking the end of the month of fasting, Ramadan, an inauspicious time for acts of violence. Whether this will lead to national reconciliation remains to be seen.
“This remains a very fragile situation,” said Kerry, adding that “this holds not only the risk of more bloodshed and polarisation in Egypt, but also impedes the economic recovery, which is so essential for Egypt’s successful transition”.