The Obama administration dispatched Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns to Cairo this week in an attempt to clarify to Egyptians where the United States stands on this month’s coup against the elected government of Mohammed Morsi. At a news conference, Mr. Burns delivered a clear message: The United States will “support an open, inclusive, tolerant democratic process” to restore civilian government; Egyptian authorities should refrain from “politically motivated arrests”; and a dialogue must begin with “all sides and all political parties” — meaning the ousted Muslim Brotherhood.
The problem, as it has been so often during the past two years, is that Egypt’s generals are ignoring the message from Washington. Mr. Morsi, at least nine other top Muslim Brotherhood leaders and hundreds of activists continue to be imprisoned incommunicado. There are reports that prosecutors will soon indict the former president on the far-fetched charge of espionage, a crime that carries the death penalty. The new, military-installed cabinet, which features coup leader Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi as deputy prime minister, includes no representatives of the Islamist parties that won 70 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections a year and a half ago. At least half a dozen members, including the foreign minister, previously served in the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Mr. Sissi himself is being glorified in state-run media and poster campaigns as a national hero comparable to Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former military dictator who rose to power following a 1952 coup. Like the previous military regime, his has not hesitated to use violence to consolidate power. Scores of Egyptians protesting the coup have been shot dead by troops and military snipers.
The armed forces’ civilian allies are no more disposed to heed Washington. Leaders of the Tamarod movement, which organized the June 30 demonstrations that provided cover for the coup, refused to meet with Mr. Burns; one cited as a reason U.S. support for “the Zionist entity,” which is the term for Israel used by Arabs who refuse to recognize the Jewish state. Liberal Egyptians who dare to suggest that Islamists must be included in the new political order, or who worry about what former parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy called “fascism under the false pretense of democracy and liberalism,” have been vilified.
This collapse of U.S. prestige and influence in Cairo is in part the result of a growing xenophobia that has been stoked by all Egyptian parties. But it also reflects consistent missteps by the Obama administration, which over the course of two years has repeatedly failed to speak up clearly against human rights abuses or to use the leverage of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid delivered to the military. Despite a law requiring a suspension of aid to countries following a coup against an elected government, the administration is refusing to designate the coup as a coup and is proceeding with a new delivery of F-16s to the armed forces.
The generals’ position is logical: Why heed advice from Washington if rejecting it will not stop the flow of U.S. arms? The contempt of civilian politicians for U.S. envoys is understandable as well: Why respect a government whose pro-democracy rhetoric has no connection to its actions?