Egypt Crisis Draws America’s Attention to Middle East Once Again

The administration urges Egypt’s president to form a more inclusive government to stave off a return to army rule.

American defense secretary Chuck Hagel speaks with Egyptian defense chief Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi and President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo, April 24
American defense secretary Chuck Hagel speaks with Egyptian defense chief Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi and President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo, April 24 (Department of Defense/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

With over 23 Egyptians reported dead in clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi and Egypt’s powerful military ready to impose a solution to the crisis later on Wednesday, American foreign policy is once again in the throes of a dilemma.

President Barack Obama, who has taken a pragmatic approach to the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the last two years, is faced with another political crisis in the Arab world that could escalate into further violence among Egypt’s many factions.

When news broke that the Egyptian army would impose its own solution if Morsi was unable to appease the demands of his opponents, American officials quickly rushed to the phones to confer with their Egyptian counterparts. The White House released a short readout of a conversation between Presidents Obama and Morsi that took place late on Monday. While it was short on details, the message clearly exhibited American alarm that further conflict could result without a compromise that Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s secular parties and millions of protesters could live with.

Egypt has been through mass protests before. Millions of Egyptians poured into the streets of Cairo and Alexandria in January and February 2011, culminating in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, the man who had ruled Egypt with an iron fist for thirty years. Those demonstrations, however, were not entirely peaceful. At least eight hundred protesters were killed. Thousands more were imprisoned by a police apparatus that has largely stayed intact under Morsi’s administration.

A similar scenario is unfolding today but it is occurring in an Egyptian body politic that is far more polarized than it was two years ago, when Mubarak was the target for Christians, moderate Islamists, Salafists and seculars alike.

One year ago, Morsi entered the presidency with just over 50 percent of the vote, a result that could be considered a mandate even when a large minority of Egyptians voted for the other candidate on the ballot. Those divisions have deepened with this week’s crisis and the United States are desperately trying to find some way to alleviate the situation before it gets worse.

Consistent with its foreign policy in general, the Obama Administration has chosen to take a middle line. The president reportedly emphasized to Morsi during their phone call that he must cede some power to the opposition or at the very least launch a genuine national unity government with more seats for youth and secular groupings in his cabinet. Demonstrations must remain peaceful, Obama added, and all eighty million Egyptians need to be cared for by their government.

The question on everyone’s minds is what will happen if Egypt’s military — which receives $1.3 billion in American financial aid per year — fulfills its threat to dissolve parliament, suspend the Constitution and possibly forces Morsi to step down.¬†American law prohibits Washington from sending assistance to an army that deposes an elected civilian government. But since Egypt’s military is the strongest institution in the country, and a crucial counterterrorism partner for the United States, that is one strategic relationship the Obama Administration can ill afford to jeopardize.

For a president who has sought to reorient American foreign policy into areas of the world that were neglected by his predecessor, Egypt’s crisis and the impending removal of the Morsi government is another example of a Middle East sucking Obama back in.