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WASHINGTON, Jul 6 2013 (IPS) - Two days after a military coup ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Washington appeared deeply divided over how to respond to what most experts believe is a critical moment for future relations between the U.S. and political Islam both in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.
On the one hand, some analysts are arguing that the U.S. must try hard to dispel the notion that it supported or now accepts the coup, lest it persuade Islamist parties, including Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, that its purported promotion of democracy worldwide does not apply to them.
“The Obama administration would be wise to distance itself from the army’s actions and use its leverage, particularly the promise of financial assistance, to pressure the military to respect the rights of Islamists,” warned Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, in an op-ed published Friday by the New York Times.
Like many other experts, he noted that the current moment recalled Washington’s acquiescence in the Algerian military’s last-minute cancellation of the 1992 elections which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to sweep – an action that resulted in a civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people were killed and that radicalised a generation of Islamists.
On the other hand, other analysts – many of them neo-conservatives and others closely associated with the Israel lobby — have greeted the coup in Egypt more positively, urging the Obama administration to accept the coup, continue aid, and work closely with the generals, who are now seen as in control despite their nominal transfer of power to the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, to ensure a return to democratic rule.
“(A)ctually cutting off the aid now would be highly counterproductive, turning the United States into the adversary of the very actors we now depend upon to return Egypt to a democratic path,” according to Martin Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution and founder of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).
Any distancing by the administration from the Egyptian military risked alienating U.S. allies in the Gulf who supported the coup, he wrote on foreignpolicy.com, and by Israeli leaders whose relations with the military “have grown much stronger since (former President Hosni) Mubarak’s overthrow; cutting U.S. aid is the last they will want.”
For itself, the Obama administration has maintained a studied silence since its initial reaction to Wednesday’s coup issued in Obama’s name several hours later.
“(W)e are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsy and suspend the Egyptian constitution,” Obama said.
He also called on the military “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsy and his supporters” – a request that appears already to have been disregarded, as Morsi, as well as hundreds of other Brotherhood leaders, have reportedly been taken into custody.
Obama also directed the relevant U.S. agencies to “review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance” to Egypt – a reference to laws dating back nearly 30 years that require the government to suspend military and most economic aid whenever a democratically elected government is overthrown in a military coup d’etat or decree.
To most observers, Obama’s decision to apply the law would be the most dramatic way of distancing Washington from the coup and demonstrating to the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties that it is not applying “double standards” in the Middle East, as was already suggested during the George W. Bush administration when U.S. officials insisted on a Western diplomatic and aid boycott of Hamas, a Brotherhood affiliate, after it swept Palestinian elections in 2006, and then supported a failed coup against Hamas’ government in Gaza.
“…(T)here should be no question that under a law passed by Congress, U.S. aid to Egypt – including the 1.3 billion dollar annual grant to the military – must be suspended,” according to the lead editorial in Friday’s Washington Post, which argued that “if it does not provoke the eruption of violent conflict, this coup may well ensure that Islamist forces, including more radical groups, grow stronger.”
Some analysts gave voice to that fear even before the coup. “If the Brotherhood’s tenure in office is abruptly ended due to pressure from a secular military, opposition, media and judiciary,” warned Ed Husain, an expert on political Islam at the Council on Foreign Relations in another Times op-ed posted Wednesday, “then the more extremist Islamists in the Arab world will say: ‘We told you so. Democracy does not work. The only way to create an Islamist state is through armed struggle.’”
“Those who, out of their distaste for anything Islamist, are welcoming the Egyptian military coup, ought to be careful what they wish for,” noted Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran who headed U.S. intelligence analysis on the Middle East from 2000 to 2005.
“They may wind up with something that is not just distasteful but dangerous,” he added, recalling how some insurgents in the Algerian civil war have since mutated into Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Still, others, such as a former top Obama Mideast adviser, WINEP counsellor Dennis Ross, said the huge public anti-Morsi demonstrations that preceded the coup made Egypt different from Algeria and that what limited influence Washington still had in the country should be used to prod the military in the desirable direction.
“The last thing we want is for Egypt to become a failed state…” he wrote in a USA Today column Friday.
Similarly, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a joint statement Friday suggesting that Washington give the military the benefit of the doubt before taking action.
“It is now up to the Egyptian military to demonstrate that the new transitional government can and will govern in a transparent manner and work to return the country to democratic rule,” said Republican Rep. Ed Royce and Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel – both of whom are close to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
“We are encouraged that a broad cross-section of Egyptians will gather to rewrite the constitution,” they added.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal’s hard-line neo-conservative editorial board stressed Washington had too much at stake to disassociate itself in any way from the military, insisting that “cutting (military aid) off now would be a mistake. Unpopular as America is in Egypt, 1.3 billion dollars in annual military aid buys access with the generals. U.S. support for Cairo is written into the Camp David peace accords with Israel,” according to its lead editorial Friday.
It added that Egyptians “would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet…”
Other pro-Israel neo-conservatives insisted that Morsi’s tenure proved that Washington had been mistaken in engaging the Brotherhood or political Islam.
“(T)he lesson from Egypt is that democracy may be a blessing for people capable of self-government, but it’s a curse for those who are not,” wrote the Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens, on the eve of the coup. “There is a reason Egypt has been governed by pharaohs, caliphs, pashas and strongmen for 6,000 years.”
Added the New York Times columnist David Brooks even more broadly, in a column entitled “Defending the Coup”: “It has become clear – in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza, and elsewhere – that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. …It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.”
More moderately, Bush’s senior democracy and Mideast adviser, Elliott Abrams, called in nationalreview.com for suspending aid pursuant to the law, but noted that, because most of that assistance is already obligated, “…an interruption of aid for several months is no tragedy, so long as during those months we give good advice, stay close to the generals, continue counter-terrorism cooperation, and avoid further actions that create the impression we were on Morsi’s side.”
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
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