If he didn’t take sides, he clearly laid blame. U.S. President Barack Obama “strongly condemned” Egypt’s interim government and its army for a deadly crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Wednesday’s violence left a death toll of more than 600 in its wake – the Muslim Brotherhood says the number is more than 2,000. Mr. Obama said America had to condemn it. He also opposed Egypt’s curfews, martial law and arbitrary arrests. “While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional co-operation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” he said.
The U.S. President cancelled a joint military exercise with U.S. and Egyptian forces, scheduled for next month, and dangled a tacit threat that the $1.3-billion in American military aid could be cut. It was a blunt warning to Egypt’s leaders, especially the powerful army and its commander, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, that they could lose an important ally – and crucial funds.
But the situation remains a thorny problem for the U.S., which wants Egypt as an ally. The Obama administration accepted, but never loved, seeing Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, as president of the biggest Arab nation. When the military overthrew Mr. Morsi, the U.S. President refrained from calling it a coup. On Thursday, he said that while Mr. Morsi had been elected president, his government was not inclusive and didn’t respect the views of all Egyptians, with millions, perhaps a majority, wanting change.
Still, Mr. Obama said, there could have been another chance at reconciliation, but the Egyptian government chose to launch a crackdown instead.
Other Western nations condemned the force used to clear the encampments of protesters, and called for restraint.
French President François Hollande personally summoned the Egyptian ambassador, and “firmly condemned the bloody violence in Egypt and demanded an immediate halt to the crackdown,” his office said in a statement.
Canadian officials, too, summoned Egyptian chargé d’affaires Mohammad Fakri, to express its concern at the violence and urge the regime to engage in dialogue and work to restore calm, an official said. Canada doesn’t have active military co-operation with Egypt, and is not suspending its relatively small $10-million development aid to Egypt, officials said.
But from the international allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, there was a more strident message. Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned that Western nations are “on the point of failing the democracy test,” and said they had to respond to the “very serious massacre.”
At Mr. Erdogan’s urging, members of the United Nations Security Council convened an emergency session Thursday night. After the meeting, Maria Cristina Perceval, UN ambassador for Argentina, the current Security Council chair, said the council urged an end to violence and for the parties to “exercise maximum restraint.”
The limitations of diplomacy
The chief question hanging over the international community’s efforts is whether they can have any real impact. The U.S., European Union, United Arab Emirates and Qatar had engaged in shuttle diplomacy to try to urge some kind of compromise between the military-backed regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, to no avail.
Western diplomatic statements, including Mr. Obama’s, expressed a chorus of disappointment over that failure.
Mr. Obama called for Egypt’s government to stop the crackdown and launch national reconciliation. Around the world, countries from China to Canada have called for dialogue. Mr. Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, lobbied other leaders , including Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to pressure Egyptian officials to release prisoners and negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood.
But some believe no amount of international influence can lead that far. International pressure didn’t result in talks before Wednesday’s violence – and many in the Brotherhood are now nursing bitter wounds.
Egypt’s military, having ousted Mr. Morsi, arrested Brotherhood leaders, and put down protests, is not likely to enter talks, said University of Windsor professor Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt. “The army has really gone out on a limb here,” he said. “It’s put up everything it has. It’s not going to walk away.”
Mr. Bell said that countries that have influence with the regime might instead be able to use it to mitigate the crackdown – to encourage the Egyptian military to use less live ammunition when dealing with protesters, limit the bloodshed, soften the most repressive tactics, and perhaps release some Brotherhood figures.
Egypt’s interim government has insisted it has a roadmap for returning the country to democracy through elections in six months – though many are skeptical they will meet it – and countries with influence can also pressure Egypt to adopt an inclusive constitution, Mr. Bell said, and hope it is respected.
Who needs to be influenced?
Egypt’s interim government was quickly cobbled together to fill a void when Mr. Morsi was ousted, with former judge Adly Mansour as president. But there’s little doubt that it’s the armed forces in charge. And the Commander-in-Chief, Gen. Sissi, has ridden the adulation of the Cairo crowds that wanted Mr. Morsi ousted to personal power.
Vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei, a conciliatory reformist, resigned Wednesday over the crackdowns. Others deemed liberal, like Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, appear to have decided they faced a choice between secularists and Islamists, and stuck with the military. When the interim government named 18 new provincial governors this week, half of them were retired generals.
The government isn’t even the popular face for the regime, said Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Brookings Institution. Gen. Sissi is the hero. “The transitional government, nobody knows who they are,” Ms. Momani said. “ Nobody knows who Adly Mansour is. They know Sissi. And Sissi’s a rock star.”
She fears that wave of popularity may make Gen. Sissi feel he is beyond international suasion – and many in Egypt appear to be egging him on to put down the Muslim Brotherhood, ruthlessly. It’s possible no one can sway the general.
In addition to the army and the interim government, there is one other crucial player: the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Morsi is behind bars, but his supporters, who have lived though long decades of state repression, have not accepted that their leader – an elected president – was ousted. Even if the army is willing to talk, it’s unclear if the Brotherhood would agree.
Who has influence with Egypt?
The United States would be expected to to wield heavy influence with Egypt and its armed forces, given its $1.3-billion in military aid – weaponry and hardware – every year. Also important, according to Egypt experts, are the heavy ties between the militaries in the two countries, because Egyptian senior officers are usually trained in the U.S. When the Arab Spring protests erupted in 2011, senior U.S. generals called their friends in the Egyptian forces to urge restraint.
But the twists of events since the Arab Spring and Mr. Morsi’s election have created conspiracy theories and accusations, with many secularists accusing the U.S. of backing Mr. Morsi. Resisting U.S. pressure might be popular on Cairo streets.
There are other players who might influence the regime, notably those who provide aid, military or financial, to a country with a deeply struggling economy: the European Union and its major powers, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
And any international pressure will have to involve key players on the other side – backers of the Muslim Brotherhood. They might prove crucial, not only in swaying the movement’s leaders to accept concessions, compromise, or talks, but also in reaching some kind of international consensus on what should come next.
Qatar, which backed Mr. Morsi’s government and has provided money to the Brotherhood, would have sway. But Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey might prove more of a mentor. His party also stems from Islamist-movement roots, which clashed with a secularist military that was long viewed as the real “deep state” power in Turkey.
“They could sit them down and say, ‘We know what you’re going through,’” Ms. Momani said.