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Obama Struggles To Find Effective Egypt Policy

President Obama delivers a statement on Egypt at his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard on Thursday.
Getty Images
President Obama delivers a statement on Egypt at his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard on Thursday.

The Obama administration is in a difficult situation with its Egypt policy.

President Obama, who often talks about free speech and human rights, has cancelled joint military exercises with Egypt but has stopped short of cutting off aid to the Egyptian military. As the violence continues in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, all sides seem unhappy with the U.S. approach.

In 2009, on his first trip to the Middle East as president, in the same year he won the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama spoke of a new approach to relations with the Islamic world.

"I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he said in a speech at Cairo University. The speech was hailed as a turning point in U.S. foreign policy.

This past week, though, he was trying to explain to Egyptians why he's not cutting off aid to a military that was violently cracking down on Islamist protesters.

"Given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world and our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically elected civilian government, we've sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people," he said, making a statement from his vacation at Martha's Vineyard on Thursday.

To demonstrate his concern over the action of security forces, he cancelled plans for joint military exercises next month. Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says there is not much else the United States can do instantly, but he does see changes in this relationship.

"We have been working for 30 years to broaden, deepen and strengthen our cooperation with Egypt," Alterman says. "Now we are moving to make that narrower, but it takes time."

Time to decide what is essential, he says, adding that counterterrorism cooperation, regional security and Israel are all key factors.

"The United States has played a vital role lubricating the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, which has led up to being a huge boon to Israeli security," Alterman says. "If you don't have as close a U.S.-Egyptian relationship, that is going to have definite visible effects on the Egyptian-Israeli border."

Other analysts say it's time to completely rethink U.S. policy on Egypt. Michele Dunne, who runs the Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, says Obama's failure to suspend aid undercuts U.S. credibility, and could come back to haunt it.

"What's happening now in Egypt — the crackdown on Islamists, the widespread bloodshed — and what's happened in Syria is going to build the new jihadist narrative of betrayal by the West," Dunne says: "That the United States failed to come to the assistance of the Syrian people in a timely and effective fashion, and that it failed to not only act effectively but even to withdraw assistance from the Egyptian military when it cracked down on Islamists inside of Egypt."

Against this backdrop, Dunne says, the president's speeches about democracy and human rights ring hollow.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki spent much of the last week trying to fend off criticism of the administration's approach. AP diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee pressed her on how effective she thinks U.S. policy has been.

"Is the administration confident that the steps, that the policy that you have pursued thus far in Egypt and also in Syria are worthy of a president who not so long ago won the Nobel Peace Prize?" Lee asked.

"Yes, Matt," Psaki answered, but she also acknowledged that no one thinks that simply cancelling military exercises with Egypt will change the situation on the ground.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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