x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

US faces battle to restore trust in Egypt after 'kowtowing to Brotherhood'

America's strongest allies in Egypt, the military, may be back at the helm of politics in Cairo, but Washington has found itself in another foreign policy blunder in the Middle East. Taimur Khan reports from New York

NEW YORK // America's strongest allies in Egypt, the military, may be back at the helm of politics in Cairo, but Washington has found itself in another foreign policy blunder in the Middle East.

The United States faces an uphill battle to restore trust in Egypt among supporters of the military takeover, who said the US for months kowtowed to the Muslim Brotherhood, and Mohammed Morsi's supporters, who wondered why Washington so quickly dumped a democratically elected leader.

"The US doesn't start from a position of strength, that much is clear," said Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert with The Century Foundation think tank in New York. "We're faced with a set of really challenging circumstances."

Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago, US officials have said that their core interests in Egypt - including maintaining peace with Israel and the security of the Suez Canal - were best served by a transition to inclusive democracy that fostered long-term political stability.

That position led the administration of the US president, Barack Obama, to support the elections that brought Mr Morsi to power and recognise him as the legitimate representative of a majority of Egyptians.

In the hopes of appearing to not take sides, it offered only muted criticism after Mr Morsi rammed through an Islamist-tinged constitution and expanded his executive powers in a controversial move last November. Meanwhile, critics said that the US did little to engage the fractured opposition.

As Mr Morsi became increasingly embattled in recent months, US officials reportedly urged him in private to take steps to address the secular opposition's demands. But publicly they did not take a stand, and the opposition forces read this as support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the days before June 30, when millions took part in anti-Morsi rallies, the US ambassador in Cairo tried to defuse the situation by urging the opposition not to take to the streets, which only reinforced the perception of American partisanship.

On Wednesday, however, Mr Obama stopped short of calling Mr Morsi's overthrow a coup and did not demand his reinstatement.

"The Brotherhood views Washington as having once more decided that Islamists do not get to win elections," wrote Michele Dunne, the director of the Atlantic Council think tank's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, in the Washington Post.

After the military's moves on Wednesday, US interests lie in ensuring an orderly transition, said Mr Hanna.

But with both political camps feeling alienated, the Americans "aren't in the best place" to influence either the Brotherhood or the former opposition, Mr Hanna said.

Where Washington may have more influence is with the military, which is still highly dependent on US aid.

And it is crucial that Mr Obama does whatever is possible to ensure that the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are included in the transition, said Mr Hanna.

While the Dh4.77 billion in annual military aid for the current fiscal year is secure for the time being, US law requires aid to be suspended to countries whose democratically elected governments have been deposed.

In his statement Mr Obama called on the military to act quickly to return to a democratic, civilian set-up, warning that he had directed federal "departments and agencies to review the implications under US law for our assistance to the government of Egypt".

"If the military is smart and they put together something that can really be considered a government of national reconciliation," said Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington, "then the US will say 'well it was not really a military coup'" and avoid the suspension of military aid.

But Ms Ottaway added that the military could be tempted to permanently limit the political power of Islamists. "There is a lot of concern in Washington about how the military is going to play its hand."

tkhan@thenational.ae

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