Having pressed the new Egyptian president, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday was seeking to mobilize what influence the US still has with the Egyptian army chief whose key role in the country is splitting the country between those who see the military as a threat to democracy and those clinging to it as a guarantor of stability. The US sees it as a bit of both.
Clinton’s demand to the military will be simple: Work with Egypt’s new Islamist leaders on a full transition to civilian rule. -However, with the US having already approved yet another massive delivery of military aid, it is unclear what leverage US President Barack Obama’s administration has as it seeks to stabilize Egypt and build a new relationship with Washington’s once ironclad Arab ally.
The meeting with Egyptian Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi in Cairo comes with Egypt’s transformation from dictatorship to democracy in peril. Tantawi’s council of generals is locked in a tense political standoff with the Muslim Brotherhood after curtailing the powers of its victorious Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on the eve of his inauguration last month and enforcing a court decision dissolving the Islamist-dominated parliament. Together, the actions have created an atmosphere where no one is quite sure who is in control and where Egypt is headed.
Seventeen months after the street demonstrations that ousted former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the US is left without a friend and with little influence among a host of old and new political actors who cannot seem to chart a mutual path forward. Calling for compromise and -consensus on Saturday after her first ever meeting with Morsi, Clinton staked out a middle ground in the dispute. Yet, the immediate effect of her exhortations was nothing.
Clinton, who earlier this year certified sufficient Egyptian action toward democracy for US$1.3 billion in US military aid to go through, will likely carry the same message to Tantawi as Morsi. Without taking a position in disputes over parliament or how to draft a new constitution, Clinton will urge the long-time military chief to return the armed forces to a “purely national security role,” as she termed it on Saturday.
Her criticism was muted, however. Clinton commended the military for defending lives during the revolution in February last year against the former president and for the progress Egypt made under its interim leadership, which included free and fair elections.
She also contrasted the approach with how Syria’s military is “murdering their own people,” while recognizing that the Egyptian military authorities still needed to do more. It is unclear if she will adopt a tougher tone with Tantawi behind closed doors or what that might even yield from the generals, whose distrust of the US is now almost as strong as that of the Brotherhood.
Appearing alongside Clinton at a news conference on Saturday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr said Morsi stressed in his meeting with the US secretary that he would respect all treaties Egypt has entered into, which includes the landmark 1979 peace accord with Israel.
Amr said the president spoke in favor of a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal along the 1967 borders and with east Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestine — a moderate Arab vision for a two-country solution that his party members have often been vague on in the past.