Obama Faces Dilemma Pitting Egypt President Against Army

The Egyptian military’s decision to give President Mohamed Mursi 48 hours to restore order presents U.S. policy makers with a dilemma.

The ultimatum yesterday by Abdelfatah Al-Seesi, the defense minister and head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, could force the Obama administration to choose between backing Egypt’s democratically elected leader and supporting military action aimed at halting chaos and blocking any move by Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood allies to impose strict Islamic rule.

“You see a confusion in the administration’s own view on Egypt,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast envoy and now a vice president of the Wilson Center, a Washington public policy research organization. While the U.S. had to respect the results of the election in which Mursi won 52 percent of the vote, Miller said, the Egyptian leader hasn’t been willing to work much with the opposition since then, and the U.S. hasn’t pushed or encouraged him.

President Barack Obama told Mursi in a telephone call yesterday that the U.S. “is committed to the democratic process in Egypt and does not support any single party or group,” according to a White House statement.

Obama encouraged Mursi “to take steps to show that he is responsive” to the concerns of demonstrators, stressing “that democracy is about more than elections, it is also about ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard and represented by their government.”

Violence ‘Unacceptable’

During the conversation, Obama “underscored his deep concern about violence” and sexual assaults during the demonstrations and urged Mursi “to make clear to his supporters that all forms of violence are unacceptable,” according to the statement.

Al-Seesi’s 48-hour warning was intended to pressure Mursi to make “real concessions” and not an indication the military wants to take power itself, said Robert Springborg, professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California.

“Right now it’s a game of bluff between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood,” Springborg said. “The military has cards to play, but so do the Brothers.”

With Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood, the military and the opposition each making calculations on how the others may react, the U.S. response “has been completely and utterly inadequate,” Springborg said. “It was wrong for us to support the Brothers. It was shortsighted.”

The president’s approach has drawn criticism in Congress, which holds the purse strings on about $2 billion in annual U.S. economic and military assistance to Egypt, second only to Israel among U.S. aid recipients.

Power Grab

Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Obama has been too willing to look the other way as Mursi overstepped the democratic limits of his position.

“The Egyptian turmoil stems from the Mursi government’s predictable power grab, which the Obama administration has been far too accepting of,” Royce, a California Republican, said in an e-mail. “U.S. aid has failed to compel the Mursi government to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to avert this crisis.”

Representative Kay Granger, a Texas Republican who leads the Appropriations Committee’s State and foreign operations subcommittee, said she is “extremely concerned” about events in the country.

Stability Imperative

“Stability in Egypt is vital to the U.S. and imperative for the region’s security and the security of our allies, including Jordan and Israel,” Granger said in an e-mail.

With much of the Middle East and North Africa also in turmoil, the stakes are high: Egypt is the most populous Arab nation, the first to sign a peace treaty with Israel, the guardian of the Suez Canal and a linchpin of American policy in the Middle East.

Despite pervasive corruption, the U.S. has continued to support Egypt’s military with $1.3 billion a year in aid. It also has maintained close ties to Al-Seesi, who spent a year at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where his papers were laced with Islamic thought, and used him as a bridge to the Muslim Brotherhood, said a U.S. official active in Egypt policy.

“The United States has managed to achieve its most important priority in its relationship with Egypt since the revolution, which is the preservation of its security cooperation and the preservation of Egypt’s commitment to shared security interests, including the peace treaty with Israel,” Tamara Coffman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy research organization in Washington, said in an interview.

Political Turmoil

“If the political turmoil in Egypt continues, and if Egypt cannot move onto a more stable and democratic trajectory, I don’t know that security cooperation will be sustainable over time,” she said.

The military has made it clear that it doesn’t want to be pulled into the fray, seeing its role as the final backstop in preventing civil disorder, said Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.

For now, Wittes said military officials “might be pressing behind the scenes in their contacts with these political leaders, pressing them to find a compromise.”

Al-Seesi’s aim has been to maintain the military’s power, influence and wealth in an Egypt that is more Islamist than it had been under Mursi’s army-backed predecessors, said the U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S.-Egyptian relations at a sensitive moment.

Divided Opposition

Now, Al-Seesi and the Obama administration face a dilemma because Mursi’s opposition is too divided and disorganized to offer an alternative, while millions of Egyptians protest that their elected leader has failed to deliver the political and economic benefits promised by the Arab Spring rebellion.

“What is very worrisome is that I don’t think the opposition has more of a plan now than they ever had in 2011,” said Marina Ottaway, senior counsel at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “They still think that if the demonstrations are large enough, Mursi will simply resign and somehow the Muslim Brotherhood will be put in its place.”

The opposition’s only message is shared antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood and Mursi, Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview. “Other than that, there’s not much that binds these groups together,” he said.

“We’re heading for an unhappy end in Egypt, how unhappy isn’t clear,” said Miller. “I don’t see a happy way out of this. The Muslim Brotherhood can’t govern, the military won’t govern, and the opposition doesn’t know how to govern, which means no one is in charge.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.