Over the past two days, millions of Egyptians have taken to the streets, most of them calling for early presidential elections with the aim of ousting Mohamed Morsi. June 30 marked Morsi’s one-year anniversary as president, and while he was elected democratically in 2012, his actions since have been more in the authoritarian style of a Mubarak than a reformer with the demands of the Egyptian street in mind. From giving himself sweeping powers in a presidential decree to rushing a flawed and highly ideological constitution, the president has not presented a figure desiring of democratic change or respectful of the myriad opinions and practices of the populace.
The Obama administration in the early days of the Tahrir Square uprising took a principled stand shoulder to shoulder with the Egyptian people in urging the removal of Mubarak. Since then the White House has tried to walk a fine line with Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood, and the political arm of the Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, on the grounds that Morsi was chosen in a free and fair election. The administration has been careful to work with a government that was not its dream choice, thus diverging from previous responses to elections in which the winners were not to U.S. liking, such as the victory of Hamas in 2006 or Algerian Islamists in 1992. This time around, the Obama administration congratulated Morsi on his win and engaged with him and his government—however tense those engagements were at times.
But while U.S. support for democratically elected leaders has not budged over President Morsi’s first year, Morsi’s steady march to ideological authoritarianism has evolved quickly.
Regrettably, today the people of Egypt widely perceive the United States as a supporter, even enabler, of an increasingly repressive government.
This may be a bum rap for Obama, but Egyptian politics can often be treacherous for an American president. During a press conference yesterday in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Obama repeated well-worn words that the United States does not support a particular individual or party, but rather the democratic process. He noted that Egypt went through a legitimate election process, which produced Morsi as president, and that the U.S. attitude has been to deal with this democratically elected government.
In fairness, Obama also noted that the United States believes democracy is not only about elections but about how an elected leader works with an opposition and treats minority groups. Still, protestors read his words as another declaration of support for Morsi as an elected leader, no matter that leader’s actions after taking office.
A few hours later, Obama called Morsi, in part to toughen his message. According to a statement from the White House, Obama told Morsi that the voices of all Egyptians must be heard. While Obama reiterated his earlier statement of support for democratic elections, this time he did so in a way that implied criticism of Morsi. “The United States does not support any single party or group,” he said, meaning the Freedom and Justice Party.
The Egyptian presidency was quick to exploit President Obama’s call. It released a statement in Arabic claiming that Obama had called Morsi to “express his administration’s support for the elected leadership by the Egyptian people and its support for the democratic transition in Egypt.” Thus, despite an attempt to harden his earlier statements, Obama’s call to Morsi served only to again alienate the Egyptian street from the United States.
As difficult as it may seem, this is not a no-win situation. The Egyptian people would welcome a clear American stance supporting the millions of Egyptians who reject Morsi’s power grab just as President Obama stood with reformers against Mubarak in 2011. But the real problem with the Obama administration’s dealings with the Egyptian government may not ultimately lie in its ambivalence about the Muslim Brotherhood, but its distrust of the Egyptian military.
The Obama administration has consistently and strongly opposed a return to military rule in Egypt. Some reports even indicate that Pentagon officials warned the Egyptian military that a coup would trigger U.S. legislation that would cut U.S. aid to Egypt, which totals approximately $1.5 billion annually.
The military warned Morsi yesterday that it would intervene if he failed to meet the demands of the people within 48 hours, saying that it would step in to draw up an inclusive road map for the future. The road map, it was announced today, includes early presidential elections and the rewriting of the constitution—the exact goals that the U.S. government is gunning for. Again, the Egyptian presidency dismissed the Army and the people by insisting it would continue on its own path.
Now, with the military backing the protestors’ as well as U.S. aims, the Obama administration must rethink its position. The army has a proven track record of relinquishing power to civilians. Moreover, millions of Egyptians are in the streets demanding that the army restore stability and public safety, which are the bedrock of any democracy. Egypt’s military enjoys a 94 percent positive rating among Egyptians, according to a recent poll conducted by Zogby International, and a popular chant during the protests has been, “The people and the army are one hand.”
Obama’s good democratic instincts that aligned with the Egyptian people in 2011 who demanded the removal of a dictator must again lead him to support the majority of Egyptians who call for Morsi’s removal as no less of an autocrat. Essentially, the United States must take a stance that shores up the Egyptian street and puts Egypt on a path that will continue the democratic process in order to bring real power back to the people. The army could be a bridge to allow people-powered democratic institutions to emerge.