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America’s difficult high-wire act in Egypt

In the face of a nearly impossible diplomatic dilemma, the US must continue to have an open mind toward Egypt.
Egypt protest 7 16Enlarge
A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Morsi demonstrates on July 16, 2013 under the Six October Bridge in the center of Cairo. (MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's Note: Nicholas Burns is GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist. He writes a bimonthly column on the international issues that shape our world.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As the chaos in Egypt accelerates, Washington will have to think hard about the role it must play as the most influential outside force in that critical country. Despite a distracted Congress, declining military and diplomacy budgets and the general inward direction of the country, the Obama administration has no choice but to remain engaged in Egypt.

The stakes are too high for the US to do otherwise.

In Egypt, the US has followed a generally sensible and careful strategy despite the torrent of criticism — much of it unwarranted — of its actions over the past few weeks.

In fact, the administration is facing a nearly impossible diplomatic dilemma — how to balance support for the democratic process in Egypt, on the one hand, versus our interest in maintaining a close relationship with the military, on the other. The US has to try to protect both of these interests — thus the sheer degree of difficulty in this high wire act.

Despite all the Monday morning second-guessing, the administration was right to work closely with the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohamed Morsi. The US was obligated to work as productively as it could with the government brought to power in the first democratic elections in Egypt’s modern history.

One obvious benefit was when former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton negotiated successfully with Morsi to end the Hamas rocket attacks against Israel late last year. Working with Morsi also sent a signal to Islamist movements in Egypt and every Arab country that the US was open-minded about cooperating with a broad range of religious and political parties so long as they acted peacefully and within the electoral system.

Now that the Egyptian military has taken the fate of the country into its own hands by arresting Morsi and overthrowing the government, the US faces two difficult dilemmas.

The first is what to do about the substantial $1.3 billion US aid program, in place now for three decades.

American politicians from both left and right are calling on President Obama to suspend aid. But we can’t afford to cut off aid at this juncture. Nothing could be more dangerous and self-defeating for American interests in Egypt and the region. It would deprive us of much of the influence we have had with the Egyptian military and would send a powerful signal that we were opting out at the most critical moment of Egypt’s tortuous revolution. Suspending aid, like cutting off diplomatic ties with a difficult government, rarely works to the benefit of the country walking away. Both are highly emotional, symbolic reactions that, in the end, usually limit our ability to push governments in more positive directions.

The US needs to maintain aid for the time being to hold onto a strong working relationship with whichever government is in power in Cairo. There are three overriding reasons for this.

First, Egypt’s Camp David Agreement with Israel remains the cornerstone of America’s Middle East policy. The Egyptian military leadership is the key advocate of continuing the policy of peace with Israel.

Second, we need continued Egyptian help to counter radical terrorist groups in the region, another Egyptian military priority.

And, third, we will certainly need Egypt’s help to prevent Iran’s drive for expanded military and political power in the Middle East.

All of these first-order, consequential American interests will be at risk if we cut off aid and thereby make ourselves less influential with military leaders who will be central to whatever lies ahead in Egypt’s roiling political waters.

The second dilemma for the US is how to keep lines open to all the major political actors simultaneously — the military, the democratic reform parties as well as Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. We have an obvious interest in steering them toward compromise and away from confrontation. And we should push them toward democratic reform and the promotion of greater civil liberties for all Egyptians

President Obama and his advisors are walking a very fine line in the messages they are sending to the Egyptian leadership. Keeping close ties to the military, as Obama had done, is essential but not sufficient. The administration must continue to push the military to release the imprisoned Morsi, keep the political system open to involvement by all parties, and create a quick transition to a new constitution, elections and civilian rule.

This isn’t going to be easy. In fact, it almost certainly will not be attainable in the short term. But the administration has no other option but to continue to talk sense to Egypt’s warring political parties and continue to stand up for a democratic future.

The coup, however much it was defended as necessary by those opposed to the Morsi government’s excesses and incompetence, was highly negative in one big way — it did nothing to resolve the major religious and political divisions in the country. Egyptians need to find a way to build a democratic system that can be sustained from one party’s rule to the next without interference from the military. They are a long way from that goal. The US is better placed than any other country, however, to help guide, cajole and push Egypt eventually in this more positive direction.

The administration can also help stabilize the Egyptian economy over the months ahead. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait took a huge step in this direction by pledging $12 billion to the government last week. Those governments have now acquired dramatically greater influence in Cairo. Their emergency aid will give the interim Egyptian government the means to provide subsidized food and other essential services to Egypt’s millions of poor and provide some short-term stability. Working closely with the three Gulf states, Washington can also enlist European and Asian support for expanded trade, aid and a long-term agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

This is as tough a diplomatic challenge as the US faces anywhere in the world. America’s military power, however, will be of little use as the administration proceeds. It will need to rely instead on our diplomats, led by Secretary John Kerry and our very capable, experienced and unfairly criticized Ambassador, Ann Patterson. The visit from Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns to Cairo this week was exactly the type of quiet, serious and careful diplomacy needed to give Egypt’s rival parties some room and time to forge a compromise.

The American role in the Middle East has changed since the start of the Arab revolutions two and a half years ago. We are not as dominating a force as we once were. But we are still critical and valued by those struggling to shape a better, democratic and more peaceful future in Egypt.

Nicholas Burns, GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty chair of the school’s Middle East Initiative, India & South Asia Program, and is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project. He served in the United States Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in April 2008. Burns was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). Follow him on Twitter @RNicholasBurns.
 

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