The Obama administration is proceeding cautiously in its response to the ouster of Egypt’s President’s Mohammed Morsi, straddling a line between supporting democracy while declining to take sides.
But the policy choices aren’t easy: Denounce the ouster of Morsi outright, and the U.S. could be accused of propping up a ruler who’s lost the public’s support — a prospect with eerie echoes of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, whom the U.S. supported for decades before the 2011 revolution that cleared the path to power for Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Look the other way, and the U.S. could be accused of fomenting dissent or lose credibility on its commitment to the democratic process.
The administration is acting as if it accepts what happened in Egypt — and actually believes it could turn out for the best. At the same time, officials are attempting to keep their distance, laying down markers for what they want to see in the long term while leaving it up to the military to make sure that happens.
But the White House may also be concerned that in the short term, the situation could spiral out of hand, with the military using the clamoring in the streets as an excuse to confront the Muslim Brotherhood with excessive force. In bringing up U.S. aid in conversations with Egyptians without cutting it off, the U.S. leaves itself room to escalate the situation if need be, but also to work with Egypt’s new government if it moves in the right direction.
In his first, carefully crafted comments after Morsi was forcibly removed from office, President Barack Obama said the U.S. would “not support particular individuals or political parties,” acknowledging the “legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people” while also observing that Morsi, an Islamist, won his office in a legitimate election.
“We believe that ultimately the future of Egypt can only be determined by the Egyptian people,” Obama said in a statement late Wednesday. “Nevertheless, we are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian armed forces to remove President Morsi and suspend the Egyptian constitution.”
He notably stopped short of labeling Morsi’s ouster a coup, leaving himself some wiggle room to navigate a U.S. law that says the government must suspend foreign aid to any nation whose elected leader is ousted in a coup d’etat. But Obama did say he was ordering the government to assess what the developments portended for aid to Cairo. The U.S. considers the $1.5 billion a year it sends Egypt to be a critical U.S. national security priority.
“I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsi and his supporters,” Obama said.