Obama Offers a Revisionist History of His Administration’s Approach to Egypt
President Obama said Monday his government makes decisions on aid to Egypt based on that government’s respect for democracy and the rule of law. The record suggests otherwise.
In nearly every confrontation with Congress since the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the White House has fought restrictions proposed by legislators on the nearly $1.6 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt. Twice in two years, the White House and the State Department fought hard against the very sorts of conditions for aid that Obama claimed credit for this week. When President Mohamed Morsi used the power of his presidency to target his political opponents, senior administration officials declined to criticize him in public. Many close Egypt observers argue that the Obama administration’s treatment of Morsi has been in line with the longstanding U.S. policy of turning a blind eye to the human-rights abuses of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
But don’t tell that to Obama. On Monday he said, “The way we make decisions about assistance to Egypt is based on are they in fact following rule of law and democratic procedures.” The president made these remarks in Tanzania, as millions of Egyptian street protesters demanded Morsi’s ouster.
Hillary Clinton, the secretary of State in his first term, described the Egypt aid process during a September 2011 visit to Cairo that took place after Mubarak’s resignation, but before the powerful Egyptian military acceded to the drafting of a new constitution and the free elections held in June 2012, when Morsi won office.
"We believe in aid to your military without any conditions, no conditionality,” Clinton said. "I’ve made that very clear. I was with the foreign minister, Mr. Amr, yesterday, and was very clear in saying that the Obama administration, and I personally am against that. I think it’s not appropriate."
(Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Mohamed Kamel Amr on Tuesday, a day after the foreign minister announced his own resignation in response to the massive street protests and the military announcing a 48-hour ultimatum for the president to respond to those protests.)
In March 2012, Clinton waived restrictions passed by Congress on aid to Egypt “on the basis of America’s national-security interests.” That decision came in the midst of the Egyptian government’s crackdown on foreign NGOs, which included the raiding of the offices of several American organizations, including the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and Freedom House.
In April of this year, Kerry again waived all congressional restrictions on aid to Egypt, but did so secretly and without any explanation. The State Department later explained that aid to Egypt’s military was necessary because of U.S.-Egyptian cooperation on things like counterterrorism.
Five senators in March proposed changes to the way the U.S. gives aid to Egypt in the hopes of using the aid to pressure Morsi to improve his record on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. But the Obama administration, led by Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, fought those changes, and none was ever passed into law.
That same month Kerry delivered to Morsi an additional $190 million of U.S. aid based on Morsi’s pledge to implement economic reforms, part of a $1 billion debt-relief package Obama pledged to Morsi.
"This is simply an inaccurate description by the president of his administration's decision-making process with regard to U.S. assistance to Egypt,” says Stephen McInerney, the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. “The administration's decisions about U.S. aid to Egypt have been based primarily on short-term conceptions of preserving security. There is no evidence that such decisions have ever been made based on whether the Egyptian government is following the rule of law and democratic procedures, as the president claims."
Michele Dunne, the executive director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, says that since 2011, U.S. policy has reverted to a traditional pattern of cooperation with the host government, and now the administration is embarrassed and is trying to pretend it used its influence to pressure Morsi.
“Obama’s statement constitutes a revisionist history of what they have been doing over the past two years,” she says. “We have not exercised the kind of support for democratic progress that we should have. That’s why people still think to this day that the Obama administration is just fully in support of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
At least some protesters on Egypt’s streets have taken a similar view, holding up signs with photos of Obama and Patterson with big red X’s across their faces. Activists were angry that Patterson criticized the preparations for their protests in public remarks, saying, “My government and I are deeply skeptical" of the protests, which she suggested would lead to “more violence on the streets.”
Patterson has been the Obama administration’s key interlocutor with Morsi. One senior Arab government official who watches Egypt closely said Patterson had access to the highest levels of the White House, access many other ambassadors in Arab capitals did not enjoy.
"Because she came from Pakistan and she was effective in Pakistan, she saw a country where the military essentially ran the country and the civilian government is weak," this official says. "She wanted to make sure Egypt does not turn into a Pakistan, so she invested in the relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood government."
While Patterson engaged Egypt quietly, the Obama administration was slow to criticize Morsi in public when he prosecuted journalists and other activists under an old law that makes it illegal to insult the president. Elliott Abrams, who oversaw Middle East policy for the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, says Obama ended up treating Morsi the same way he treated the Egyptian dictator he replaced, Hosni Mubarak.
"There was no human-rights pressure on Mubarak," Abrams says. "Then Mubarak falls, and Morsi takes over. They treated Morsi more or less the way they treated Mubarak. They really failed to criticize him ever in public."
For now the Obama administration is searching for a plan B. While trying to maintain ties with the military and the civilian government, the president's top officials have engaged in a flurry of diplomacy. One source familiar with the communication says the message to Egypt's top generals is that they can pressure the elected government, but cannot engage in a coup d'état.
The White House warning is based on a U.S. law that prohibits U.S. support for any military that institutes a coup against an elected government. But the Obama administration could get around that law if it wanted to by not characterizing a temporary military takeover as a coup.
“If you conclude there was a coup, you have to suspend aid,” Abrams says. “In the case of Honduras, this is what the administration concluded. In the case of Egypt, I think they will be very reluctant to do that, because they want to continue the relationship with the Egyptian military.”
The military also has already received the 2013 U.S. aid package and is not expecting a new tranche until the spring of 2014, according to McInerney.
The National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment about Obama's remarks.