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Military Overthrow Challenges U.S. Engagement With Egypt by Dow Jones Business News

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July 3, 2013, July 4, 2013 | comments
The Egyptian military's overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi Wednesday could challenge the U.S.'s ability to engage with the Arab world's largest country.
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The Egyptian military's overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi Wednesday could challenge the U.S.'s ability to engage with the Arab world's largest country.

Already, some Egyptian politicians and Middle East analysts are accusing the Obama administration of being complicit in the overthrow of Mr. Morsi by failing to publicly condemn the military's moves against the president over the past two days.

The State Department, just an hour before the Egyptian military's announcement of Mr. Morsi's deposing, roundly criticized the Islamist politician for a defiant Tuesday night speech and charging him with being unwilling to reach out to the opposition.

At the same time, U.S. officials declined to condemn what many in Egypt were describing as mounting steps by the military to launch a coup d'etat against Egypt's first democratically elected leader.

"There's no way we're not going to be implicated" in his overthrow, said Steven Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington. "The Muslim Brotherhood will whip up its supporters. In time, even some secular leaders will likely buy into a conspiracy."

In Washington, some officials believe more violent clashes or even civil war remain possible as tensions grow between supporters of Mr. Morsi and the opposition. While not wanting to support a coup, U.S. officials didn't want to be seen as backing Mr. Morsi either, because of his accumulation of power.

"You don't want to support the wrong folks so we don't want to support anyone," said a U.S. official. "That is why we have to be apolitical."

In the short term, the Obama administration will be challenged to maintain its financial pipeline to the Egyptian military, which is budgeted at $1.3 billion during the current fiscal year

Congressional legislation demands the U.S. suspend assistance to allied militaries that are certified as having overthrown democratically elected governments. It's unclear if or how the administration might argue that the overthrow of Mr. Morsi wasn't a coup.

Longer term, the events in Egypt will further challenge the U.S.'s efforts to manage the political transitions taking place across the Arab world since 2011, said Mideast analysts.

Egypt has been seen as the test case for the emergence of newly democratic systems in the Middle East. The perception that Washington tacitly accepted a military takeover in Cairo could hurt the U.S.'s ability to promote political reform in countries ranging from Syria to Yemen.

The State Department on Wednesday afternoon didn't respond to request for comment on Mr. Morsi's fall.

Some former Obama administration officials have been uneasy about various actions taken by Mr. Morsi in his one-year tenure and believed the U.S. should have made known its disapproval earlier and in more forceful terms.

Sonni Efron, a former Obama administration State Department official and now a senior government fellow at Human Rights First, said, "I understand there's always a need to preserve and work on a very important bilateral relationship, but this is the perfect example of how when we don't stand up for universal values we're wrong-footed by history."

Speaking of the events unfolding in Egypt, she said "It's certainly a coup, but it's not necessarily a coup against a democracy."

Tamara Coffman Wittes, also a former State Department official, said "The administration was slow to recognize that Morsi was not governing in a way that was creating conditions for a sustainable democracy. He took office pledging to be a president for all Egyptians, but he failed to build an inclusive cabinet and he failed to make decisions in a consultative manner. There were early warning signs that the U.S. did not effectively respond to."

The turmoil in Egypt is latest example of the troubled partnership between the U.S. and Egypt, which hasn't recovered from the White House's handling of the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The Obama administration was criticized for not pushing Mr. Mubarak for political changes and then for withdrawing its support quickly when demonstrations grew.

More recently, the U.S. administration was slow to criticize Mr. Morsi's growing power grab and his failure to address Egypt's mounting economic woes, apparently eager to engage the Brotherhood as its influence spread across the Mideast over the past two years.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Obama took a distant position from unfolding events in Egypt, declining along with the State Department to speak out against the Egyptian military's threats to take action if the country's political crisis wasn't resolved.

Speaking during a visit to Tanzania, the U.S. leader appealed for calm, but appeared to undermine Mr. Morsi by stressing that the U.S. didn't back any particular politician in Cairo.

There are early indications the Egyptian military's move against Mr. Morsi might be well received on Capitol Hill. Many of Washington's top allies in the Middle East, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were wary of his rule and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The Brotherhood's rise in Egypt has emerged as one of the greatest challenges to Mr. Obama as he seeks to manage the political revolutions that have broken out across the Arab world since 2011.

"It is unfortunate that Morsi did not heed popular demands for early elections after a year of his incompetent leadership and attempting a power grab for the Muslim Brotherhood," said Rep. Ed Royce (R., Ca.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "I am hopeful that his departure will reopen the path to a better future for Egypt, and I encourage the military and all political parties to cooperate in the peaceful establishment of democratic institutions."

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