The president’s philosophy of limited engagement is facing perhaps its toughest test in Egypt, where the nation’s first democratically elected president was ousted by military forces with deep, decadeslong ties to the U.S.
The White House has refused to declare Mohammed Morsi’s removal from power a coup — a step that would require Obama to suspend $1.3 billion in annual aid — even after the military-backed interim government led crackdowns last week that left more than 600 people dead and thousands more injured.
Obama’s resistance to suspending U.S. support for Egypt’s military leaves the White House with little leverage, effectively relegating the president to the role of a bystander issuing strongly worded statements. The U.S. position has also stirred up anti-American sentiment in Egypt, with Morsi supporters accusing the U.S. of failing to live up to its own democratic values by allowing an elected leader to be pushed aside.
The president insists that the U.S. stands with Egyptians seeking a democratic government. But he says America could not determine Egypt’s future and would not “take sides with any political party or political figure.”
“I know it’s tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what’s gone wrong,” Obama said Thursday in remarks from his rented vacation house in Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard. “We’ve been blamed by supporters of Morsi. We’ve been blamed by the other side, as if we are supporters of Morsi.”
“That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve,” Obama added.
Steven Cook, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Obama’s “middle-splitting” approach for Egypt undercuts U.S. support for democracy in the region.
“The idea that we can influence the trajectory of the politics is foolish,” Cook said. “But to have not been consistent in emphasizing our own values in this situation is a mistake. We should stick to the principles of democracy and recognition for the rule of law.”
However, the U.S. relationship with Egypt has long required Washington to ignore the country’s repressive politics in exchange for regional stability. For 30 years, the U.S. propped up Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak in part to ensure that he maintained Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, one of only two such accords in the Arab world.