US expected to tap Iraq envoy for Cairo

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U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft is expected to be nominated to be the next US envoy to Egypt, U.S. officials and diplomatic sources tell Al-Monitor, after the Cairo embassy has been without a full-time U.S. ambassador for several months.

Beecroft, who has served as the top American diplomat in Baghdad since 2012, is a career foreign service officer who previously served as executive assistant to both then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, as well as former US Ambassador to Jordan. He has also served at US embassies in Riyadh, Damascus and in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and Executive Secretariat.

Al-Monitor previously reported that current US envoy to Jordan Stuart Jones is expected to be nominated to succeed Beecroft as US ambassador to Iraq.

Neither Beecroft nor Jones responded to queries.

The anticipated nominations come as Secretary of State John Kerry informed Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy Tuesday that he will certify to Congress that Egypt is complying with its strategic commitments to the US to counter terrorism and proliferation as well as with the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the State Department said in a read-out of the phone call Tuesday. The certification is expected to make way for the US to release Apache helicopters to Egypt.

Kerry, in the call, however, “noted that he is not yet able to certify that Egypt is taking steps to support a democratic transition,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Fahmy is due to travel to Washington next week, after a stop in San Francisco. Kerry is also scheduled to meet with Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate Mohamed Farid El-Tohamy at the State Department Wednesday.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson left Cairo last August, and was confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in December. Then-US Syria envoy Robert Ford had been expected to succeed her, but the nomination did not proceed, amid lingering Egyptian suspicions that the US was sympathetic to Egypt’s ousted, elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and associated Islamist factions in Syria’s rebel movement. Ford retired from the State Department at the end of February.

Separately, the Atlantic Council announced Wednesday that US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone Jr., will become its vice president and director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Continue reading

Both Egypt, US reviewing their relations, Egypt’s envoy says

Egypt and the United States are reviewing their relations, but both countries benefit from their strategic partnership, Egypt’s envoy to Washington said Monday.

“No doubt we are in a state in which both sides are revising their concepts about the relationship,” Egypt’s Ambassador to the United States Mohamed Tawfik told Al-Monitor in an interview Monday. “We are reviewing it in more ways than one. The objective of this review is not to downgrade relations, but rather to make sure to continue to build relations, but on sounder and stronger foundations.”

“Sometimes you may take things for granted,” the Egyptian envoy said. “It is important to understand in what ways both benefit from it.”

Tawfik spoke from Cairo’s embassy two days after Egypt’s interim government announced that Egypt would hold a referendum next month (January 14-15th) on a new draft constitution—a step the envoy said would help Egypt advance the democratic process and let Egyptians move forward in the wake of the July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. It also came as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was expected on Wednesday to introduce legislation that could ease US assistance to Egypt and give the administration more leeway to waive current restrictions on aid after a military coup.

“We are continuing to work with the Congress to ensure we obtain the funding and authorities necessary to provide assistance for Egypt, consistent with the approach we outlined earlier this year,” Bernadette Meehan, spokesperson for the National Security Council, told Al-Monitor Wednesday of the Egypt aid bill.

“The idea is to put in place democratic institutions and a democratic process and leave the door open for everyone to participate,” Tawfik said of the upcoming referendum on the draft constitution. “We are on track in the road map.”

But US-Egyptian ties may take longer to adjust. The envoy declined to comment on a New York Times report  from October citing National Security Council officials suggesting that Egypt would be less of a priority for the White House in Obama’’s second term. But he said Washington should not take Egypt for granted.

“Egypt has been and will remain a central player in the Middle East,” Tawfik said. “Its role is indispensable… The United States needs and will  continue to need regional partners who are dependable and at the same time have the acceptance of different parties in the region. Egypt is that first and foremost.”

In the meantime, Cairo has been looking to expand ties with Russia and China.  “Our policy is that we need to widen our options,” Tawfik said. “And have good relations with all countries, including with Russia and China. However, he added, “this should not be at the expense of relations with the US.”

Egypt’s interim rulers have in recent months been intensifying efforts to fight jihadi extremists in Sinai and have struck tunnels into Gaza, a priority for Egypt as well as Israel. and the United States “One of the areas that we have been very active in in the past few months has been to try and deal with the extremists in the Sinai,” Tawfik said. “And to destroy some of the tunnels into Gaza. This has been so far a successful operation. This certainly has served Egypt’s national interests, and been very useful for the US as well.”

Asked about violence in the Sinai, Tawfik said the area had become more fertile ground for extremists during Morsi’s one year rule.  “No doubt that the number of extremist elements in Sinai increased dramatically during the one year in which the Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt,” Tawfik said. “Now it is up to us to deal with that issue. So [the extremists] are not able to harm Egyptians. These are very dangerous elements.” Continue reading

Obama tries to strike balance on Egypt after crackdown

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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Obama statement on Egypt avoids 'coup'

President Obama refrained from declaring the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi a military coup in a statement issued Wednesday after White House consultations with his national security aides.

“No transition to democracy comes without difficulty, but in the end it must stay true to the will of the people,” Obama said in the statement.

“The United States continues to believe firmly that the best foundation for lasting stability in Egypt is a democratic political order with participation from all sides and all political parties —secular and religious, civilian and military,” he said.

Obama statement “expressing deep concern over the military's decision to remove President Morsi tracks that [U.S.] legislative definition of a coup very closely, and I can't help but think that's deliberate,” Tamara Wittes, a former senior State Department Middle East official who heads the Brookings Saban Center, wrote. “The law in place is designed to give coup-established governments a strong incentive to return their countries to democratic rule — aid can resume as soon as new democratic elections are held.”

Meantime, Egypt's Al-Tahrir newspaper had a message for President Obama on its front page Thursday:

Top Photo: President Obama, photographed on Wednesday meeting with his national security team to discuss the situation in Egypt. To his left, new National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder, CIA Director John Brennan, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Jake Sullivan, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. To Obama's right, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, DNI James Clapper. Secretary of State John Kerry called into the meeting by phone, State Department officials said. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Second photo of Al-Tahrir front page from the Newseum, posted to Twitter by @Jfdulac.

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Morsi ousted: Egypt army suspends constitution, calls early elections

Egypt's military chief announced Wednesday that it was stepping in to transfer power from Egypt's Islamist President Mohammad Morsi to a technocratic government ahead of early parliamentary and presidential polls.

“President Mohammad Morsi has failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people,” Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sissi said in a televised address to the nation Wednesday, al-Arabiya reported.

Flanked by Muslim and Christian clerics and opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, al-Sissi vowed “not to exclude anyone or any movement” from Egypt's political process.

He said Egypt's military did not plan to become involved in politics, but was responding to the demands of the people, as witnessed in some of the largest protests ever seen. But shortly after he spoke, to fireworks and ecstatic cheers of anti-Morsi protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Sqaure, the Muslim Brotherhood's television station “went blank,” the Associated Press reported.

Morsi was reported to have been taken to an undisclosed location. A statement on his Facebook page said “that the measures announced by the Armed Forces' General Command, are considered a 'military coup,' …and this is rejected,” Al-Arabiya reported.

“What we are seeing now is a major change in the dynamics in the region,” an Egyptian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The idea that you need a secular dictator to protect you from religious autocracy is falling apart.”

The “lively forces of the population are the ones who will oust the dictatorship–secular or religious,” the Egyptian official continued.

Egyptians did not accept that they have to choose between an autocratic Muslim Brotherhood government or military rule, he said. If they didn't like the next government, he said, Egyptians would take to the streets again and bring it down, too.

Morsi's ouster came as the United States had steadily distanced itself from him over the past 48 hours, while insisting that it wasn't taking sides.

President Morsi, in a speech Tuesday, “had an opportunity to lay out some specific steps” to show responsiveness to the demands of the protesters, “and he did not take the opportunity to do that,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at a press conference Wednesday. Meantime, the State Department on Wednesday also ordered non-emergency U.S. personnel and diplomats' family members to leave Egypt, and urged American citizens to defer travel to Egypt due to the unrest.

The Saudi King and UAE Foreign Minister both sent congratulations to the Egyptian caretaker government and its appointed head, Supreme Court Justice Adli Mansour.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton spoke with ElBaradei Wednesday, and “urged all sides in Egypt to return rapidly to the democratic process,” her spokesperson Michael Mann said.

(Top Photo: Protesters, who are against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, react in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem. Second photo: Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi addressing the nation on Egyptian State Television Wednesday, July 3, 2013. AP Photo/Egyptian State Television.)

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Egypt protests: live-feed

Live feed from Cairo's Tahrir Square Wednesday showing millions of Egyptian protesters celebrating as the Egyptian army's deadline passed for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to respond to protesters' demands. From PBS:

Live video from your iPhone using Ustream

Earlier Wednesday, Essam al-Haddad, a top foreign policy advisor to Morsi, warned in a statement posted to his Facebook page that what is happening in Egypt is a military coup:

As I write these lines I am fully aware that these may be the last lines I get to post on this page.

For the sake of Egypt and for historical accuracy, let’s call what is happening by its real name: Military coup. […]

You have heard much during the past 30 months about ikhwan excluding all others. I will not try to convince you otherwise today. Perhaps there will come a day when honest academics have the courage to examine the record. ….

The State Department said Wednesday that it was not taking sides, but it was disappointed that Morsi, in his speech Tuesday, did not offer more steps responding to protesters' demands.

“There are broad immediate steps that could be taken, [including] to call for an end to the violence, specifically violence against women; and… take steps to engage  with [all parties, including] the opposition and the military,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Wednesday. Continue reading

White House: US not ‘urging’ Morsi to hold early elections

The White House on Tuesday pushed back on a report that American officials are urging Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi to call early elections, in response to the largest anti-government demonstrations Egypt has ever witnessed. The comments seem intended to reduce any perception that Washington is trying to dictate a course of action to the Egyptian leadership.

“It is not accurate that the United States is 'urging' President Morsy to call early elections,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in an e-mail Tuesday to Al-Monitor.

“President Obama has encouraged President Morsy to take steps to show that he is responsive to the concerns of the Egyptian people and underscored that the current crisis can only be resolved through a political process,” Meehan continued.  “As the President has made clear since the revolution, only Egyptians can make the decisions that will determine their future.”

The White House comment, responding to a CNN report Tuesday, didn't rule out that US officials may be discussing the option of early elections with Egyptian officials behind closed doors.

“We are saying to him, 'Figure out a way to go for new elections,'” a senior US official told CNN. “That may be the only way that this confrontation can be resolved.”

President Obama, in a call with Morsi Monday, said the United States does not favor any particular group in Egypt, and stressed only Egyptians can determine their future.

The comments are widely seen in Egypt as a step back from Washington’s past, at least-perceived support for Morsi’s elected, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, Egyptian journalist and Al-Monitor contributor Mohannad Sabry said.

(Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shout slogans against him and members of the Muslim Brotherhood during a demonstration in Tahrir square in Cairo June 30, 2013. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters.)

Obama tells Morsi: US does not favor any Egypt group

US President Obama told Egypt's President Morsi in a phone call Monday that the United States does not support any particular group, and that only Egyptians can determine their future.

The comments are widely seen in Egypt as a step back from Washington's past, at least-perceived support for Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government, Egyptian journalist and Al-Monitor contributor Mohannad Sabry said.

The White House read-out of the July 1 call below:

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US military team in Jordan to help with Syria crisis


A US military team has been deployed to Jordan to assist the key American ally manage the refugee flow and instability from the Syrian conflict next door, the Pentagon has acknowledged.

A U.S. defense official, speaking to the Associated Press, said some “100 military planners and other personnel stayed in Jordan after attending an annual May exercise and several dozen more have flown in since,” the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The US military task force operates out of a US-Jordan military base north of Amman.

The task force, led by a senior American officer, is “now largely focused on helping Jordanians handle the estimated 180,000 Syrian refugees who have crossed the border and are severely straining the country’s resources,” the New York Times reported. Its mission “also includes drawing up plans to try to insulate Jordan …from the upheaval in Syria and to avoid the kind of clashes now occurring along the border of Syria and Turkey.”

The US official “stressed that the team is not there to fight, but rather for contingency planning on a number of issues including how to handle the flood of Syrian refugees in Jordan and creating a buffer zone to protect the ally in the continuing crisis,” the AP report said.

Jordan’s King Abdullah dissolved parliament October 4th to make way for the country’s first post-Arab spring parliamentary elections, due to be held early next year. Continue reading