Obama silent on Egypt as power struggle worsens

A poster of ousted President Mohammed Morsi hangs on the barbed wire at the Republican Guard building in Nasr City, Cairo July 9, 2013.
A poster of ousted President Mohammed Morsi hangs on the barbed wire at the Republican Guard building in Nasr City, Cairo July 9, 2013.
Khalil Hamra/AP

President Obama waited just hours to make a celebratory statement on national television when Egypt’s 30-year ruler, Hosni Mubarak, was forced from power two years ago. During nearly seven minutes of remarks, in which he conjured up images of Martin Luther King Jr. and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Obama called the shift in power “a beginning with difficult days ahead.” But for the people of Egypt, he said: “Nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.”

Now, a week into anther power shift, with Mubarak’s elected successor pushed out by the military, Obama has been unseen and unheard in Egypt. His silence speaks volumes. Neither bear-hugging the Egyptian military nor keeping it at arm’s length, Washington’s posture in the wake of President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster seems to be one of a cool embrace.

The White House said on Monday that it will not suspend the flow of U.S. aid to the new, military-backed Egyptian government. Spokesman Jay Carney said it would “not be in the best interests of the United States” to change its assistance programs now. Carney did added that the administration would review last week’s events to determine if a “coup” had taken place, which would legally prohibit the United States from providing further funding.

Carney noted that “this is a complex and difficult issue with significant consequences,” and pointed out that millions of Egyptians supported Morsi’s removal.

Few in Washington offered official support for the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president. But reality is often trickier than ideals and U.S. officials seem to be bowing to the regrettable truth that the military is in charge in Egypt, a key American ally. Even if the power grab collides with American values, the consequences of cutting off ties could be dire, both for U.S. security and Mideast stability.

The United States provides approximately $1.5 billion in aid each year to Egypt. The country is the second-largest receiver of American aid after Israel.

WATCH: President Obama praises fall of Hosni Mubarak regime in 2011

Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who specializes in Middle East issues, said the Obama administration would continue to provide aid  because it wants to preserve an ally, even a potentially tarnished one. And that’s not a change of course from the past.

The U.S. has continually demonstrated that “we will accommodate ourselves to Egypt’s leaders if our regional security interests are met,” said Hanna. That was the case under Mubarak and Morsi.

Those interests, said Hanna, include Egypt’s peace with Israel, which was negotiated in 1979 by former President Jimmy Carter under the Camp David Accords. American aid to Egypt is not officially part of the accords, but is a direct result of the deal. If America yanked its aid, Egypt’s peace deal with Israel might be at risk.

Israel, meanwhile, has also reportedly urged the U.S. to continue aid to Egypt out of security concerns. There’s also a fear that counterterrorism cooperation could be hindered if U.S. aid is halted and that Islamic fundamentalism could fill the current power vacuum in the Arab world’s largest state.

U.S. aid continues to flow to Egypt

In Washington, several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioned Obama’s decision to maintain the aid. Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain said aid should be suspended. It’s “difficult for me to conclude that what happened was anything other than a coup in which the military played a decisive role,” McCain said in a statement. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also called for a halt to aid until the interim government schedules new elections.

SLIDESHOW: Chaos, violence as protests unfold in Egypt

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator who is currently a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Obama was making a “wise” decision. “To cut off assistance now would be foolish and would deprive us of what limited leverage we have,” he said. “If we provided military assistance to an authoritarian government for decades, how can we rationalize now–as imperfect and messy as this military assistance is–at a time when the government of Egypt is actually struggling to create a post-authoritarian Democratic transition?”

Steven Simon, who until December served as Mideast policy director on Obama’s National Security Council, also said the decision was prudent. “I don’t think there’s a real alternative,” he told msnbc. “In the midst of a crisis, cutting off ties to either side would be unwise.”

“The U.S. objective is to get the Democratic process back on track so that there’s some hope of resuscitating Egypt’s economic performance. Toward that end, Washington needs to have continued, strong ties to the military, because it’s the military that’s clearly going to be managing this process,” Simon said.

One of the great hopes when Mubarak was forced from power in 2011 was that a new generation of leaders would open up the country’s economy. In his February, 2011 remarks, Obama talked about young Egyptians leading young Egyptians providing “a spirit of opportunity, jobs, businesses.” But those hoped-for fruits of revolution never came, and under Morsi, Egypt’s economy has remained stagnant.

Hanna acknowledged that Obama is in a “tough spot,” politically. At the same time the United States doesn’t want to been see as greenlighting coups and seen as setting up separate rules for Islamists. Hanna suggested a short, temporary suspension of aid with benchmarks tied to civilian government. While it might not have any impact on the ground, “it’s symbolic,” Hanna said.

But cutting aid completely, as McCain suggests, could have negative impact by weakening generations of American cooperation  ”with the Egyptian military,” Simon said. “They’ll be much less receptive to advice that Washington has to offer on the facilitated transition. The blowback would be in the form of loss of influence.”

Obama silent on Egypt as power struggle worsens