WASHINGTON — In June 2009, President Barack Obama made a landmark speech setting out a new US policy toward the Middle East — and the world. To deliver it, the newly elected president traveled to Egypt, which his then-press secretary Robert Gibbs described as “a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world.”
Four years later, the Cairo streets through which Obama traveled are burning. The past week’s violence in Egypt may finally push the US toward a conclusive decision — propping up or cutting off Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s military-controlled interim government.
Obama’s Cairo speech laid down clear guidelines for a Middle East policy based on respect and support for democratic governance and popular expression. In the ensuing four years, Egypt has forced the Obama administration to reassess the balance between support for these moral principles and America’s pragmatic strategic interest.
In the speech, Obama said he would “welcome all elected, peaceful governments, provided they govern with respect for all their people,” and warned against those who “advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.”
But even then, Obama’s stance reflected a tension between the values expressed and America’s pragmatic interests. At the time, critics blasted Obama for hypocrisy, arguing that his visit to Egypt reinforced the leadership of then-president Hosni Mubarak, under whose administration many democratic principles were disregarded. Obama claimed to support democracies, yet Mubarak’s Egypt remained a key US ally. The administration walked an increasingly difficult line between supporting democratic activism, and providing massive amounts of US aid for Mubarak’s regime, which was repressing such activism.
The same tensions continued after Mubarak’s downfall. A June 2013 congressional report noted that then-president Mohammed Morsi “may at times act undemocratically, be more confrontational toward Israel, and limit its cooperation with the United States on intelligence and terrorism-related issues.” At the same time, it noted that the US had multiple strategic interests in maintaining close ties with Egypt.
In the 2014 budget, the administration requested a total of $1.55 billion for Egypt, including $1.3 billion in military aid — the same amount provided under Mubarak’s rule. The congressional report cast the apparent policy contradiction in optimistic terms, noting that the military aid could be used as leverage to ensure that the government behaves according to democratic principles.
America, however, has not played the leverage card — at least not yet. The strategic relationship with Cairo has been deemed too important to imperil by cutting aid.
The complex reality in Egypt was quite a challenge to Obama’s worldview: How to grapple with the nondemocratic ouster of a president who had been busy expanding presidential powers to undermine the fledgling democratic process that had seen him elected?
After taking office at the start of the year, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that “a hold up of aid might contribute to the chaos that may ensue because of their collapsing economy.” Until the most recent upswing of violence, officials in Congress say, the administration counseled would-be defunders to be patient.
Despite complaints that Morsi’s policies were increasingly undemocratic, the June congressional report noted that for both the Obama Administration and the US military, there was a desire to engage Morsi’s government “on a host of issues, including immediate economic support and Sinai security.”
As the situation in Egypt deteriorated rapidly, with Morsi’s ouster at the start of July and a headlong plunge toward chaos, the administration struggled increasingly to chart its role, still refraining from utilizing its $1.5 billion worth of leverage. The complex reality in Egypt was quite a challenge to Obama’s worldview: How to grapple with the nondemocratic ouster of a president who had been busy expanding presidential powers to undermine the fledgling democratic process that had seen him elected?
It was only in the past week, as Egypt descended into full-scale violence, that the US gestured toward the first major policy change toward Cairo since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Obama interrupted his vacation on the isolated Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard to condemn the escalation of violence by both the interim military government and pro-Morsi demonstrators. That criticism, however, paled in significance when compared to his announcement that the United States would cancel the joint military exercises that had been scheduled for September. Last month, the US delayed the shipment of four F-16 airplanes to the Egyptian military, but this was the first time that a bilateral show of unity was canceled.
More ominously for Egypt’s military leadership, Obama threatened further action. “Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama said Thursday. “Going forward, I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps we may take as necessary with respect to the US-Egyptian relationship.”
Events on the ground — and on Capitol Hill — may ultimately force the administration’s hand. There are nearly one dozen bills in Congress that would provide a legal basis for stopping Egyptian aid, should the country fail to meet various political and security tests. More and more players in Washington are pushing Obama to declare Morsi’s ouster to be a coup, and that would mean an automatic suspension of aid.
There is now a growing coalition of prominent senators — a rarity in usually partisan Washington — calling for suspension. The vocal Republican component includes historical enemies Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). In an interview on CNN after Obama’s announcement, McCain said that the US had “violated our own rule of law by not calling it for what it is because our law clearly states that if it’s a military coup, then aid is cut off. So initially we undercut our own values.”
The calls have also come from Obama’s own party. Both Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) have called to suspend aid.
The Obama administration’s policy on Egypt is slowly shifting, as it becomes less and less tenable to justify a business-as-usual approach. Under heavy criticism at home, and facing the enmity of both sides on the ground in Cairo, Obama’s policy toward the “heart of the Arab world” is plainly being pushed in a direction that the president was reluctant to take.