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PV Vivekanand: US on a delicate ropewalk
July 17, 2012
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s high-profile visit to Egypt over the weekend was seen in Washington as an opportunity for the administration of US President Barack Obama to help negotiate some form of settlement between the ruling military council and the newly elected president, Mohammed Mursi, who stepped down as head of the Muslim Brotherhood after he was elected.

But the effort, which could have also seen the US assuming a role in post-rebellion Egypt, is portrayed as a failure, with the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, clearly signalling that he is no mood to make any compromise with the Islamists.

While he did not mention the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party by name, it was clear that Tantawi meant the FJP when he said he would never allow any one party to dominate the political landscape.

However, the failure or success of Clinton’s mission to Egypt could be judged only on the basis of what Washington hoped to accomplish there.

Clinton’s visit was disastrous at the people’s level. On a visit to Alexandria to reopen the US consulate there, protesters heckled Clinton, and threw tomatoes and shoes at her motorcade. Protesters also shouted “Monica, Monica” at her apparently to humiliate her by referring to the White House affair between her husband and intern Monica Lewinsky while he was president in the late 1990s.

Top Christian leaders who were supposed to meet Clinton in Cairo did not show up, saying that they believed the Obama administration was biased against secular blocs in Egypt and had been backing the Islamists at the expense of the country’s Christians who see the military as the guarantee for security and stability of the country.

The Obama administration is in a dilemma. Washington lost one of its staunch friends in the Middle East when long-time Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down in the face of a popular revolt in February last year and the military took over the country. The Obama administration’s first priority is to ensure that whoever is in power in Cairo does not disrupt the state of peace between Egypt and Israel. The ruling generals are the best bet for it, but Washington cannot afford to be seen as cosying up to them because they are deemed to be interested only in consolidating their grip on power and guaranteeing the military’s status as a state within a state.

The generals have worked against transfer of power to a civilian government and have systematically followed a strategy of pre-empting every move by the Muslim Brotherhood and other political groups.

The military council, recipient of some $1.5 billion in US annual aid, does not want Washington coming too close to it and trying to pressure it into making any compromise with the Islamist-led political groups of the country that would have a negative impact on the privileged status of the armed forces.

Washington does not have a problem dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, which could also be trusted to keep the state of peace with Israel despite its public posturing. At the same time, the US have to be wary of the group, which critics say has a record of promising something and doing something else.

Then there are the secular, liberal, apolitical pro-democracy activists who led the revolution that toppled Mubarak. They have not been able to make any serious impact through post-revolt parliamentary elections that saw the Brotherhood gaining nearly 50 per cent of the seats and fellow Islamists securing 24 per cent.

The military has since then disbanded the elected legislature, but the Islamists remain the most powerful force in the country.

The Obama administration would have been happy if Tantawi had publicly reiterated his “commitment” to democracy and willingness to hand over power to the elected president with a token gesture. But it is clear that the ruling generals have no such commitment and do not intend to empower the president after having stripped the presidency of any meaningful authority.

At the same time, Washington will be ill at ease, to say the least, with a powerful Brotherhood presidency in Egypt.

Clearly, Clinton had these considerations in mind when she avoided strong calls for a quick end to military rule, favouring language instead that called for Egyptian solutions along with respect for minority rights.

Barring unexpected developments, Washington will have to be content with following that political line for some time in Egypt. It does not have an option.

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