Crisis on the Nile

How Obama Lost His Influence in Egypt

The death toll is topping 600 in Cairo—and what can the administration do? The White House’s moves since the Arab Spring have weakened any leverage it might wield. By Josh Rogin.

08.16.13 8:45 AM ET

The Obama administration seems powerless in its effort to persuade the Egyptian military to halt the violence against civilians that has resulted in hundreds of deaths this week. The crisis lays bare the diminished U.S. influence on the Egyptian military compared to only two years ago.

In 2011, President Obama and the Egyptian military appeared to be on the same page. In response to calls not to fire on demonstrators against Hosni Mubarak, the military actually protected the protesters and Obama was able to help usher in the Arab Spring by urging the Egyptian strongman to step down. In 2013, Egypt’s military has ignored every recommendation from the White House and the administration is either unwilling or unable to use what little leverage America has left to pressure Egypt’s interim government to abide by U.S. and international requests.

While Egypt was a close ally of the U.S. for decades until the 2011 revolution, over the past two years the Obama administration has seen its influence there dwindling for a variety of reasons, according to experts and observers. The internal politics in Egypt have become more nationalistic and virulently anti-American. The Obama administration has had a timid, reactive, and somewhat-incoherent policy that has alienated all sides and sacrificed opportunities to use limited American leverage. Meanwhile, other regional actors have stepped into the void to play a larger role.

“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces,” Obama said Thursday in his first public remarks on the violence that continues to roil several Egyptian cities. “While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.”

Obama announced that the U.S. was canceling Bright Star, the joint military exercises planned for next month, but didn’t say anything about the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. gives the Egyptian military each year. It remains to be seen if the Egyptian government will respond to Obama’s missive; they haven’t acquiesced to the administration’s demands thus far.

In late June, even before the Egyptian military deposed and arrested President Mohamed Morsi, top U.S. officials urged the military against the move. Since the military takeover, the administration has been urging the military-led interim government to refrain from arresting Muslim Brotherhood leaders, avoid instituting martial law, allow for peaceful protests, and reach out to Islamists. All of those requests have been ignored.

Many in Washington say the Obama administration’s relative impotence this time around is due to a refusal to really put pressure on the Egyptian military and government.

“In 2011, the administration told the military clearly that if you kill hundreds of people in Tahrir Square, then our relationship will be severely damaged. This time they didn’t do that,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. “This administration is extremely reluctant to use pressure against its allies. Then when they try to do so, it’s too little, too late, and less effective.”

Most experts were expecting Obama to at least suspend military aid for the duration of the violence and were disappointed that the administration still won’t use the funding as pressure, even though suspending payments might not be enough to change the Egyptian military’s behavior.

Obama noted Thursday that both sides in the conflict blame the U.S., a popular and expedient political tactic in Egypt. But the Obama administration fed that sentiment by instituting an Egypt policy since 2011 that alienated key actors and failed to use U.S. leverage at key moments that led up to the current conflict, McInerney said.

“They were too deferential to the Morsi government and also to the Egyptian military and failed to build constructive relationships with all sorts of other actors inside Egypt,” he said. “And now they are desperately clinging to their relationship with the military, which is hanging by a thread, because they don’t have any other allies.”

Meanwhile, the Egyptian military has good reason to believe it can defy the Obama administration’s wishes with little to no consequences. After they deposed Morsi, the State Department declared they would not make a judgment as to whether it was a coup, allowing the U.S. government to avoid triggering a law that would have mandated a cutoff of military aid.

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“That taught the Egyptian military that we need them more than they need us and that we will not even enforce our own law,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush focusing on Middle East issues.

To be sure, Egypt became much more complicated politically between 2011 and 2013, with the emergence of new political organizations that could not have operated in the Mubarak era. Also, the 2011 revolution evoked a new Egyptian nationalism that eschewed foreign influence of all types.

“One of the themes of the uprising that has carried over from 2011 to 2013 was the notion of national power and dignity, and it was very important for politicians to be perceived as not being in bed with the U.S.,” said Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Also, the stakes were so high that no external powers would be able to influence both sides.”

But during key moments over the past two years, including when the Egyptian government arrested and then later convicted American NGO workers of felony crimes, the administration avoided direct confrontation with the Egyptians, rather than taking a tougher albeit riskier stance.

“We allegedly have influence but we never used the lever of the influence; so as a result we don’t have any,” Cook said.

Meanwhile, other regional actors have come in to fill the void left by a lack of U.S. leadership, building alliances to support both sides. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have given the new government $13 billion since the takeover, more than 10 times the U.S. military aid. Turkey and Qatar have come to the defense of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The U.S. government has important relationships with all of these countries and is not eager to choose a side, said Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. The tentative and cautious nature of the U.S. policy in Egypt is just one example of an administration approach to the Arab Spring that has been reactive and somewhat ad hoc, he said.

“This is an administration that constantly hedges its bets in a region that’s increasingly fractured. It’s in their DNA in the way they conduct foreign policy,” he said.

Overall, the Obama administration needs to maintain a good relationship with whoever is running Egypt for security reasons and recognizes that diminished U.S. influence there is the new reality.

“Leverage is like your muscles,” Katulis said. “If you don’t exercise them every once in a while, you lose them.”

Eli Lake contributed reporting to this article.