Ex envoys Wisner, Kurtzer: What the U.S. should do now in Egypt

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Two former U.S. envoys to Egypt advise that given the uncertain and violent turn of events, Washington should avoid public statements for now.

Washington was perhaps slow to recognize and try to correct the widespread perception in Egypt that the U.S. government was supporting Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government–as opposed to the elected government of Egypt.

“The United States has been behind the curve for a long time in this revolution, and I think it’s a little behind the curve this past week as well,” former US Ambassador to Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al Monitor in an interview Sunday.

“We gave the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in particular a very long time to prove his capabilities and his understanding of democracy and he failed on both counts,” Kurtzer, now at Princeton University, said. “He was a totally inept president–which is not necessarily a reason to be thrown out of office. He was also a president who didn’t understand what [democracy] means in terms of inclusiveness and respect for institutions.”

Kurtzer was a junior diplomat in Cairo in 1981 when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. He rose through the Foreign Service ranks to serve as Bill Clinton’s envoy to Egypt and the Bush administration’s ambassador to Israel.

“I think the best thing to do is to avoid public statements,” Kurtzer said. Given the fast-moving situation and current atmosphere of heightened tensions, “at this point, all public statements are being misunderstood.”

Veteran former US diplomat Frank Wisner agrees.

“If you know and respect you’re in a hole, don’t take out a shovel and dig any deeper,” Wisner, a former US Ambassador to Zambia, India, the Philippines and Egypt, told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday. “The less we say, the better.”

The son of a legendary CIA officer, Wisner joined the Foreign Service in 1961, and served for over four decades in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. During the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011, he served as a special advisor on Egypt for the Obama administration and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is now a foreign policy advisor at Patton Boggs.

“We got ourselves painted into a corner,” Wisner said. “And now we’re in the awkward position of un-painting ourselves. And it’s not very graceful.”

How did we get here?

“My own personal view is that, in an attempt to do something that I think made sense – which was to try…to get the Muslim Brotherhood government to open its doors, and create national consensus and stability and a chance to unveil some policies that might work–we allowed ourselves to get painted in the corner as supporting the Muslim Brothers, without making clear what we were trying to accomplish,” Wisner said.

“I am also frank enough to recognize there are moments when our approach to things and the mood swing, and we find ourselves out of step,” Wisner said.

President Obama “had exactly the right line. If we had only just stuck to it,” Wisner said, paraphrasing the president’s statement on Egypt last week, ‘We don’t pick governments in Egypt.’

“Say that and be done with it,” he advised. “And stop babbling and leaping to get on the right side of every fence. Unfortunately in Egypt of the last couple of years, the fence line has moved.”

The current effort by a motley coalition of Egyptian political parties–“the Tamarod gang and the (Salafi) Nour party”–and the military to come to consensus on interim leaders and a transition plan for new elections and a constitution is likely to be bumpy, Wisner said. But “to build a consensus–a workable, grubby, nasty, deal-making consensus–Egyptians are quite good at that,” Wisner said. “They are consensus people. “

The new transition government should then move to tackle two urgent priorities—restoring law and order, and stabilizing the economy, he advised.

“They have to move decisively, to go to the police and citizens, and make a major play for the restoration of law and order,” Wisner said. Next, “they have to turn to the economy… Gas in the pumps, and flour in the bread-shops.”

However, “you immediately come up hard against some very tough Egyptian realities,” he said. Since Mubarak left in 2011, the state “budget has tripled, but there is no revenue source to match. The opposite. And there has been a massive depletion in foreign exchange reserves. You cannot just wish it away.”

Subsidy reform is “a very delicate balancing act. …But there are ways to reduce the charges the state pays for,” he said, noting that the amount the Egyptian government pays for food and energy subsidies represents 15 percent of Egypt’s GDP.

Then “put your cavaliers on horses and send them to Washington to meet with the IMF,” while asking the Saudis and UAE for short help and liquidity.

What should the United States do? Offer to take the lead in putting together a “Friends of Egypt” coalition, that can help keep Egypt solvent through new elections in six months or so, Wisner suggested.

“I believe we have to at least indicate – and this will take some serious leadership – that this is not simply about reprogramming the old aid program, but that we’re actually ready to put some fresh money on the table, in order to provoke money from the international financial institutions, the Saudis and Gulf, the Europeans, and Japanese,” Wisner said.

“That will keep Egypt afloat, to get through elections,” when an elected government can lay out a longer-term economic rescue plan, Wisner said.

(Top photo: A man walks under a poster in Cairo June 6, 2013. Reuters, Abdallah Dalsh. President Obama meets with national security advisors on Egypt July 3, 2013. Reuters, Pete Souza/White House/Handout.)