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Global Geopolitics

Pressure Builds for U.S. Response to Egypt Power Grab

WASHINGTON, Nov 26 2012 (IPS) - The U.S. government is suggesting that pending aid worth billions of dollars for Egypt may be withheld unless President Mohamed Morsi dials back on recent moves, announced Thursday, that would consolidate his power and put his legislative decisions above judicial review.

“Everybody is watching how this goes forward,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland noted Monday. “All of the support that we provide for Egypt, whether it’s political support, economic support, has been in support of an Egypt that is becoming increasingly democratic, that will have a constitution that protects all of these rights. So that’s the trajectory that we want to see Egypt on.”

Nuland also intimated that the United States could still oppose a pending 4.8-billion-dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), agreed upon last week following two years of negotiations. Although opposed by many in Cairo’s intelligentsia over worries of enforced austerity measures, the loan has been heralded as needed to jumpstart Egypt’s stuttering economy, which has never picked back up following the roiling of the Arab Spring and is nearing insolvency.

While President Barack Obama has yet to weigh in on Morsi’s surprise move, two of the United States’ top legislators on foreign policy on Sunday called on the White House to send a strong or even punitive signal to Morsi.

“This is not what the United States and American taxpayers expect … our dollars will be directly related to the progress towards democracy,” John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, stated, referring to President Obama.

“Our leverage … is not only the substantial billions in aid we provide, plus debt forgiveness, plus an (International Monetary Fund) deal, but also the marshalling (of) world public opinion” against Morsi’s move.

Warning separately that “a democratically elected autocrat (could) take the place of an undemocratically elected dictator,” Carl Levin, the Democratic chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged President Obama to “express those concerns and say … we want this change to not just be democratic but also supportive of stability and also protecting minorities and human rights in Egypt.”

The recent incidents in Egypt have also gained particular scrutiny among the United States’ conservative media. Conservative pundits have long expressed scepticism of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party (which won a majority in June) and, by extension, of President Obama’s tacit support of the Egyptian president’s rise to power.

Chainsaw vs scalpel

Morsi’s so-called constitutional declaration is ostensibly aimed at breaking a grinding deadlock that has set upon Egypt’s attempts to write a new constitution and move through a political transition following the downfall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, one of the key events of the Arab Spring two years ago. Morsi and his new government have been at particular loggerheads with the judiciary, which remains highly politicised.

Among other things, the constitutional declaration would put any legislation or decree passed by Morsi above judicial review until a new constitution is written, perhaps as late as mid-2013. In addition to anxieties that this period could be extended indefinitely, this would include laws that violate human rights, civil society organisations have noted.

“Egypt is in serious need of judicial reform, but decreeing that the president rule by fiat is no way to achieve it,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said Monday. “Egypt’s president now has more power than last year’s military rulers who used their position to violate human rights.”

Morsi’s office released a statement on Sunday attempting to quell the mounting criticism. In it, the president noted the “temporary nature” of the measures, “which are not meant to concentrate powers, but … to devolve it to democratically elected parliament and to avoid any attempt to undermine or abort two democratically elected bodies … as well as preserving the impartiality of the judiciary”.

According to a new analysis released Monday by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a watchdog, “the president has offered the wrong answer to a real problem. He used a chainsaw where a scalpel was needed.”

And while ICG’s analysts suggest that much of Morsi’s declaration “arguably enjoys broad support from a citizenry yearning for stability”, the issue has been seized upon by a massive cross-section of the opposition. At least one has died and dozens have been injured in increasingly violent public demonstrations, with particularly large opposition protests expected to take place on Tuesday.

Debt relief halted

“I am waiting to see, I hope soon, a very strong statement of condemnation by the U.S., by Europe and by everybody who really cares about human dignity,” Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition figure and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told journalists on Saturday.

Officially, however, the United States, long Egypt’s most powerful ally, has remained relatively quiet in the aftermath of Thursday’s declaration. On Monday, a White House spokesperson confirmed that President Obama had yet to speak with Morsi about the constitutional declaration.

Also on Monday, State Department spokesperson Nuland reported simply that U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had spoken with her Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Kamal Amr, and that “We are encouraged that the various important stakeholders in Egypt are now talking to each other … but we’re not going to prejudge where that is going to go.”

Still, warnings over foreign aid and IMF allotments could quickly gain traction. In addition to the 1.3 billion dollars in annual bilateral aid that the United States has traditionally given Egypt, President Obama recently proposed up to a billion dollars in additional debt relief, aimed at mitigating some of the three billion dollars Cairo owes Washington.

That package has been stalled in the U.S. Congress since mid-September, however, following the outbreak of anti-U.S. protests around the U.S. embassy in Cairo at that time. While most observers have since assumed that the plan would still go forward following the U.S. presidential elections in early November, there has yet to be any additional progress on the issue.

On Sunday, the Egyptian stock market fell another 10 percent amidst uncertainty. By late Monday, however, initial signs suggested a slight easing of tensions, with the Muslim Brotherhood calling off a counter-rally planned for Tuesday, and some suggesting optimism following a meeting between Morsi and the top judiciary.

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