Egypt Violence Shows Waning U.S. Influence By Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee

Wall Street Journal
August 15, 2013
Pg. 8

The relationship between the U.S. and Egypt’s military government is breaking down, diminishing Washington’s influence as the country’s leadership violently routs its opposition and narrowing the Obama administration’s options.

The two sides have been talking past each other for weeks, both in the run-up to the violence that exploded Wednesday and over the broader question of how to handle the Muslim Brotherhood, said senior U.S. and Egyptian officials.

The White House, the State Department and the Pentagon had pressed Egypt’s generals to engage the Islamist Brotherhood into joining a new political transition in Cairo, despite the military’s overthrow of its leader, President Mohammed Morsi, in July.

The Brotherhood says it is against violence and that Mr. Morsi remains the democratically elected president.

Egyptian officials, as well as many other Arab leaders, say they believe the U.S. misunderstands the Brotherhood’s threat, and what they said is the movement’s unwillingness to responsibly engage in Egypt’s political process.

Many Egyptian officials argue that the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization that is playing a direct role in stoking violence, which the Brotherhood denies. These officials say the Brotherhood refused to call off sit-ins, which in part precipitated Wednesday’s crackdown by the Egyptian security forces on opposition encampments.

The crackdown followed repeated appeals for restraint from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has been the main U.S. interlocutor with military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi since Mr. Morsi’s ouster. Mr. Hagel has spoken regularly with Gen. Sisi to convey U.S. warnings about the implications of such a move.

U.S. officials said Gen. Sisi has been noncommittal about heeding U.S. advice on dealing with the group. Mr. Hagel and Gen. Sisi didn’t speak on Wednesday.

The Obama administration has stepped up contacts with the Brotherhood, in part to urge them to step back from a showdown with the military, and has made clear to Egypt’s generals that the U.S. believes the group deserves a seat at the table. Mr. Hagel has repeatedly told Gen. Sisi that he risks inciting more violence by cutting the group out of the political process, given the support it still has within the Egyptian populace, U.S. officials say.

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at the State Department on Wednesday, called “on the government to respect basic human rights including freedom of peaceful assembly and due process under the law.” He also said the state of emergency called by Gen. Sisi “should end as soon as possible.”

A senior Egyptian official in Cairo called the U.S. position “ridiculous. They need to understand the situation on the ground, and that people here are scared,” the official said. “The Muslim Brotherhood has committed political suicide.”

As a result of Wednesday’s bloodshed, the Obama administration is being forced to walk an increasingly difficult path between critics at home and its allies overseas. Growing numbers of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, both Democrats and Republicans, are demanding the White House formally designate Mr. Morsi’s overthrow as a coup d’état, which would trigger the U.S. withholding $1.3 billion in annual aid to the Egyptian military.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in an interview that the crackdown compelled the U.S. to cut off military aid and underlined what he called a “colossal failure” by the Obama administration in influencing Egypt’s generals, who have been “basically ignoring us.”

“We bear a large amount of responsibility for the bloodletting that’s taking place,” Sen. McCain said. He said the U.S. should consider other options, including using U.S. influence at the International Monetary Fund to deny Egypt access to loans.

Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, don’t want the U.S. to cut off support.

Israel has argued to the Obama administration that support for the Egyptian military is a fundamental part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. Arab leaders, meanwhile, believe the Muslim Brotherhood poses a threat to secular governments throughout the region.

Senior U.S. officials said they intensified efforts over the past week to engage Egypt’s military and political opposition to try to find a path out of the political impasse and avert violence. The State Department’s No. 2 official, Undersecretary William Burns, visited Cairo last week to try to broker such a deal.

Discussions over the past several days provided the U.S. with warnings about possible violence, senior administration officials said. “They’ve been saying they might do this and we’ve been saying, publicly and privately, that they shouldn’t,” a senior administration official said.

Egyptian officials said they reached the opposite conclusion. “We bent over backwards to bring in the Brotherhood,” said the Egyptian official in Cairo. “No responsible government could take any more of this.”

On Wednesday, even after violence gripped Cairo, U.S. diplomats said they believed that the U.S. initiative had been making progress, and still could. “From my many phone calls with many Egyptians, I believe they know full well what a constructive process would look like,” Mr. Kerry said at a media briefing. “I am convinced that that path is, in fact, still open and it is possible.”

Even in Washington, messages between the U.S. and Egypt crossed over this week.

On Tuesday, the Egyptian embassy hosted meetings between American Mideast experts and a retired military officer, Saad Raouf. “He said there would be no crackdown,” said one of the Americans who talked with Mr. Raouf.

—Adam Entous contributed to this article.

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