The rebuttal came shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met representatives of the Coptic minority after previously meeting recently-elected President Mohamed Morsi (right).
“There’s been a statement put out that somehow the U.S. has put its finger on the scale in favor of one side or another in this transition,” said a senior U.S. diplomat of the meeting. “She wanted in very, very clear terms—particularly with the Christian group this morning—to dispel that notion and to make clear that only Egyptians can choose their leaders.”
People who attended the meeting said that though the atmosphere was cordial, there were a few tense moments, reports suggest:
A Coptic-American activist accused the Obama administration at the meeting of having been infiltrated by religious activists bent on promoting political Islam, said Yousuf Sidhum, another of the meeting participants and the editor of Al Watan, a Coptic Christian newspaper.
“That [claim] was a very strong surprise to me and maybe to my colleagues,” said Mr. Sidhum. “Secretary Clinton reacted strongly to that accusation and said, ‘I wonder if you have any evidence for that.’ “
Egypt’s Copts and many secular liberals believe the military is the only force capable of countering an Islamist takeover.
“We are living in an unstable period,” said Emad Gad, a former member of Parliament. “If the SCAF goes back to its barracks, the Brotherhood will control everything.”
The administration has been at pains to stress its neutrality, while affirming its support for a democratic transition.
“Only Egyptians can choose their leaders,” is the message that Clinton sought to convey in all of her meetings, stressed one senior State Department official. “We have not supported any candidate, any party, and we will not. But what we do support is a full transition to democratic civilian governance.”
Washington’s circumspection is partly driven by a “lack of a vision for dealing with the Arab spring,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha, tells the Financial Times:
Mrs Clinton has been treading carefully, analysts say, as the US recalibrates policy towards a long-term strategic ally undergoing seismic political shifts. Though her words on the need of a full transition to civilian rule will provide comfort to Mr Morsi, she has been careful to mute any criticism of the generals, nor are there any signs that Washington is prepared to use its annual $1.3bn in military aid to Cairo as leverage.
“What the secretary of state clearly wants to do is demonstrate Washington’s support for a full democratic transition,” Council on Foreign Relations analyst Steven Cook told Al Jazeera. “But of course she has to walk a tight line.”
“The SCAF remains very much in control; immediately after the elections the generals gutted the power of the president. So she has to deal with both the head of state, as Mohamed Morsi is, and the power brokers behind the scenes.”
While Clinton highlighted U.S. impartiality, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took a more combative stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood, without mentioning the group by name.
“Egypt will never fall. It belongs to all Egyptians and not to a certain group—the armed forces will not allow it,” Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi told the Associated Press. “The armed forces will not allow anyone, especially those pushed from outside, to distract it from its role as the protector of Egypt.”
The perception that the U.S. is more attentive to the Islamists than to other political players is shared by some leading democracy advocates.
Hisham Kassem, a liberal political analyst [and a leading member of the World Movement for Democracy] who has had regular contact with American officials in the past said officials at the US Embassy in Cairo now have more direct lines of communication with Brotherhood members and less with liberal political players like himself.
But some analysts believe Washington and the Brotherhood are simply taking a realistic, pragmatic approach.
“Right now, everyone is polite, they seem to be negotiating civilly,” says Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Washington’s Georgetown University. “The Americans realize there’s a new game in town…They’ve come to the realization that they can do business with [the Brotherhood].”
It is a view shared by the Islamists’ leadership, he says.
“They’re pragmatic and realistic,” he said. “I think these considerations will far outweigh their considerations in the short-term.”
The widely-held conviction that Washington tacitly endorses the Brotherhood is in large part due to conspiracy theories spread by state-run media, the New York Times reports:
Morsi’s decree restoring Parliament “was intended to send a message to the military and other authorities, warning them that the Americans want him to assume full powers and that they are ready to protect him to achieve this objective,” Al Ahram Weekly quoted Diaa Rashwan of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies as saying. The report noted that Mr. Morsi issued the order not long after meeting with Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns.
The paper even quoted a former leftist presidential candidate, Abul-Ezz El-Hariri, suggesting that the United States hoped to use the establishment of a religious state as a pretext for invasion. Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said the state media’s attacks on the head of state made the situation perfectly clear: Mr. Morsi represented a double threat as the first civilian and the first Islamist to hold the presidency.
“This is a deliberate and well-orchestrated campaign to shake Morsi’s image, ensure his failure and frustrate the revolution,” Mr. Shahin said.
But some observers suggest that the coverage simply reflects the Egyptian media’s traditional deference to authority.
“The media looks to the center of power,” said Hala Mustafa, editor of the state-financed journal Democracy. “I think everybody knows that the military council represents the center of power, the real comprehensive authority in the country.”
In any case, Washington should neither let policy be driven by conspiracy theories, nor place too much credence in statements by the Brotherhood, a notoriously opportunist and willfully deceptive organization, says Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“As Americans, we don’t, and shouldn’t, let conspiracy theorists dictate American interests,” he told Egypt Independent:
The Brotherhood has been speaking out of both sides of its mouth, telling officials in DC what they want to hear, but repeatedly using hostilities in their own Arab-language releases and TV statements, and saying they believe that American intelligence committed the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, not Al-Qaeda….Trager, who says he consults with top US officials and has conducted dozens of interviews with top Brotherhood officials, including Morsy, criticizes what he says are some US intellectuals and policy makers’ attempts “to whitewash” a group with an inherently dangerous ideology.
“In some ways, all the talk in Washington about what to do in Egypt is incredibly inefficient,” said Peter Mandaville, a political scientist at George Mason University who until recently advised the State Department on Islamist politics in the region. “At a time of virtually zero U.S. influence, we don’t need to waste so much time figuring out how to try to get the Egyptian people to like us.”
The U.S. does have a degree of leverage with which to influence the trajectory of Egypt’s transition, but it is failing to use it, says a leading analyst.
One way in which Washington can “show respect for Egyptians is to stand up for democratic values more clearly than the Obama administration has so far,” argues Michele Dunne,* director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:
For more than a year, senior U.S. officials were almost completely silent while the interim military leaders led a disastrously bad post-Mubarak transition characterized by human rights abuses, an ever-changing political timetable, a nose-diving economy, harassment of civil society groups and politicization of the once-respected judiciary. After Congress imposed conditions on further U.S. military aid late last year, the administration waived them in the spring, expressing confidence in Egypt’s military rulers that turned out to be misplaced.
“Establishing mutual respect will also mean resolving the ugly legal case against American nongovernmental organizations trumped up by the military-led government last year,” she recently argued in the Washington Post:
It is still languishing in the courts and hampering all U.S. economic and democracy assistance to Egypt. Morsi can fix this easily and without interfering with the judiciary, simply by instructing the relevant ministers to approve the registration applications of the American organizations, which were submitted years ago.
*Michele Dunne is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.