Obama tries to strike balance on Egypt after crackdown

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20130815-122313.jpgPresident Obama interrupted his vacation Thursday to announce that the United States will cancel a planned joint military exercise with Egypt to protest the government crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters yesterday that killed over 500 people. But, Obama said, broader American interests mitigated against canceling the over billion dollars in US aid to Egypt at this time.

“Given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world, and our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically- elected civilian government, we’ve sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people,” Obama said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts Thursday.

“Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama continued, saying the U.S. had notified the Egyptian government earlier Thursday that it was cancelling the military exercise, Bright Star, planned for next month. “The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days. The cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop.”

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a phone call with Egypt’s defense minister and de facto military ruler Gen. Al-Sisi, “made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk,” he said in a statement Thursday.

Former US Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner deplored the violence, but said there were many warning signs that the protracted standoff between Egypt’s interim government and supporters of Egypt’s ousted president Morsi was heading towards confrontation.

“Without in any way leaving the impression that I think the bloodshed [is excused], this has been about the least surprising outcome,” Wisner, who served as Obama’s special envoy to Egypt in 2011, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“It has been warned for the longest time,” he continued. “These negotiations were not going to go anywhere, because [the Muslim] Brothers had a view about what they were trying to accomplish.”

“The Brothers thought they could defy the odds, and … drive a wedge between the international community and the government, and in that sense they have hardly succeeded,” Wisner said. “Second, they thought they could drive a wedge between” the Egyptian people and the military-led government. While they haven’t managed to do so to date, he assessed, “I can’t argue that they won’t eventually have some success.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood has reached a point where it sees this as the last battle — so, it’s either win it or die as a ‘martyr,’…victory or death,” Egyptian analyst Wael Nawara wrote for Al-Monitor Thursday, describing the expanding Muslim Brotherhood protests as “no longer a sit-in, but a sprawling town, even a city-state, with fortifications, internal police force…and border control officials.”

Wisner cautioned Washington against overreacting, stressing U.S. statements need to strike a balance, to keep ties with Cairo from further fraying and to try to urge the political transition back on track.

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

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.

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