Clinton Visits Egypt, Carrying a Muted Pledge of Support
CAIRO — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Egypt on Saturday for meetings with its newly elected Islamist president and the chief of its still-dominant military council, declaring that the United States “supports the full transition to civilian rule with all that entails.”
But after weeks of internal debate across the Obama administration over how to respond to the ongoing struggle between the president and the generals, Mrs. Clinton touched on it only lightly, saying she looked forward to working “to support the military’s return to a purely national security role.”
State Department officials said the meeting itself sent a historic message. Seated in an ornate room in the presidential palace, Mrs. Clinton smiled for cameras and traded pleasantries with President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist jailed more than once by the American-backed autocracy overthrown 18 months ago. She became the highest ranking United States official to meet Mr. Morsi since he was sworn in two weeks ago as Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
But her outreach to the new president appeared constrained by evident reluctance to address his struggle to pry power from the generals. Her muted tone, State Department officials said, reflected a growing sense that American attempts to intercede may be futile in a contest where the outcome remains uncertain, all the players are deeply suspicious of American motives, and almost any statement could elicit a popular backlash.
Instead of calling for an immediate handover of power as American officials have in the past, Mrs. Clinton instead emphasized only the need for “building consensus across the Egyptian political spectrum.” In brief remarks after the meeting with Mr. Morsi, her sole reference to the military decrees dissolving the Islamist-led Parliament and eviscerating his powers was a call for “consensus” among all sides in order “to work on a new constitution and Parliament, to protect civil society, to draft a new constitution that will be respected by all, and to assert the full authority of the presidency.”
A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in a briefing to reporters, said Mrs. Clinton planned to deliver virtually the same message in a private meeting to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s top military commander, as she did in public remarks on Saturday.
The goal, the official said, was “to engage in that dialogue and to avoid the kind of confrontation that could potentially lead to the transition veering off track,” while leaving the military’s decree taking over Parliament’s powers as a matter for Egyptians courts and politicians to decide.
Mrs. Clinton’s tone appeared softer than that of State Department comments made only a few weeks ago, when the military council had moved to disband Parliament on the eve of the presidential race. At the time, a State Department spokeswoman publicly urged the generals to meet their “commitments to the Egyptian people” to turn over power and warned of consequences for the broader American alliance if they did not.
Mrs. Clinton’s visit appeared to be a triumph of pragmatism over idealism within the Obama administration, and perhaps even within the secretary herself.
As recently as two days ago, State Department officials said, Mrs. Clinton had planned to deliver a what was billed as a major speech about the Egyptian democracy on Monday, in Alexandria. But with Egypt’s contest for power in rapidly shifting flux, there were too many questions, too many pitfalls and too little new for Mrs. Clinton to offer, said several people briefed on the process. After rejecting at least three different drafts, Mrs. Clinton called off the speech virtually on the eve of her arrival.
Along with their core strategic concerns about maintaining a stable ally in Cairo and preserving the peace with Israel, State Department officials say they continue to hope that Egypt will move toward a more democratic and fully civilian form of government. But at the moment, American policy is beset from all sides.
The generals, who seized power last year after the ouster of the strongman Hosni Mubarak, have repeatedly rebuffed American pressure. The new president, Mr. Morsi, and the other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood still harbor deep doubts about Washington’s agenda and have repeatedly surprised American officials in Washington with the accelerating pace of their moves to take power.
Implausibly, some of the Brotherhood’s secular opponents have even accused the United States of conspiring with the Islamists to push them to power. By nightfall Saturday, hundreds of protesters had gathered outside Mrs. Clinton’s hotel to protest against the claimed conspiracy. Using a transliteration of the Arabic word for the Brotherhood, one sign read: “If you like the Ikhwan, take them with you!”
“In some ways, all the talk in Washington about what to do in Egypt is incredibly inefficient,” said Peter Mandaville, a political scientist at George Mason University who until recently advised the State Department on Islamist politics in the region. “At a time of virtually zero U.S. influence, we don’t need to waste so much time figuring out how to try to get the Egyptian people to like us.”
In her remarks, Mrs. Clinton repeatedly commended the Egyptian people on the achievement of the country’s first free presidential election and stressed that Egyptians alone would decide their future. She talked as she had in the past about the importance of a peace treaty with Israel and the protection of individual, women’s and minority rights. And she said she would work with Congress and the Egyptian government on the details of delivering a $1 billion aid package that President Obama promised a year ago and which Egypt desperately needs.
But there was no indication that the administration planned to make any of the aid contingent on a full handover of power to civilians. Congress has already required Mrs. Clinton to certify that Egypt is taking steps toward democracy in order to keep delivering the current $1.5 billion in annual aid, which includes $1.3 billion in military equipment.
Officials say that the generals have repeatedly ignored American threats to withhold the aid as well as other entreaties from Washington. When a constitutional court was weighing a challenge to the electoral rules used to elect the Parliament, Anne W. Patterson, the American ambassador, repeatedly urged the generals not to seize the chance to dissolve it, officials said.
The generals did it anyway. They did not flinch from taking back for themselves all legislative and budgetary authority just at the moment they had promised a handover.
Earlier this year, during a confrontation with the United States over three American-backed groups chartered to promote democracy, President Obama himself called Field Marshal Tantawi to underscore the threat that the United States might cut off aid if Egypt continued its crackdown on the groups. The military-led government had shut them down, filed criminal charges against their employees for operating without an official license, and accused them of manipulating Egyptian politics on Washington’s behalf.
The foreign citizens on trial were ultimately allowed to jump bail and flee Egypt. But about 15 Egyptian employees of the American groups and at least one United States citizen are still facing criminal charges, potentially including jail time. In her remarks on Saturday, Mrs. Clinton made no reference to the case, and the United States has continued to deliver the aid.
Some now argue that the Obama administration’s “hollow” threats have undermined whatever leverage over the generals the United States might have gained from its aid.
“The Egyptian military likely saw its suspicions as confirmed; in a tense standoff over democratization, the U.S. would buckle under pressure,” Shadi Hamid, research director of the Brookings Doha Center recently wrote in an essay arguing for a cutoff in aid. The ruling military council “continues to undermine Egyptian democracy, apparently confident that there will be few, if any, real consequences.”
The Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi, meanwhile, remain deeply wary of Washington’s goals even after a year of mutual outreach, diplomats say, while Brotherhood leaders appear still convinced American policy makers see Egypt exclusively through the prism of Israel’s security.
Despite open channels of communication, Brotherhood leaders have repeatedly surprised Washington with their brisk moves to challenge the generals: running for and winning more parliamentary seats than they said they would, breaking a pledge not to run a presidential candidate, and then last week using a presidential decree to call back the Parliament in defiance of the generals’ order dissolving it.
State Department officials said the pattern has only increased a residual distrust of the Islamists that it is already hard for the United States policy makers to overcome.
“Every bone in the body of the U.S. foreign policy establishment is going to feel more comfortable with the idea that there is still a strong military looking over these guys,” said Mr. Mandaville, the former State Department adviser, “and looking out for U.S. interests in Egypt and the region.”