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Egypt’s Mursi Poses Dilemma as U.S. Assesses Power Grab

November 27, 2012

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi

Mohamed Mursi, Egypt's president. Source: AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi poses a quandary for the Obama administration as it struggles to respond to the democratically elected Islamist leader’s power grab -- which he made without any advance notice to Washington.

While Mursi yesterday softened his rhetoric about the decrees that exempted him from all judicial oversight, he retained the provision freeing the council writing the country’s new constitution from legal challenge. That group is disproportionately Islamist, a fact that troubles Egypt’s secularists and minorities.

The situation is forcing the U.S. to weigh its stated support for new Arab democracies -- and for Mursi’s pragmatic role in brokering the recent Gaza Strip cease-fire -- against U.S. uneasiness about his Islamist agenda for Egypt.

The U.S. has “some concerns about the decisions and declarations” announced by Mursi on Nov. 22, White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday at a briefing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone yesterday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr about Mursi’s actions as well as Gaza developments, according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

The danger is that the contract that once served the U.S. and its autocratic Mideast allies -- sacrificing democracy for stability and a cold peace between the Arab states and Israel -- no longer works, according to Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.

‘Huge Test’

“The Gaza crisis was a huge test for Mursi,” Wittes said in an interview. “In terms of U.S. interests, Mursi passed, but the lesson of the Arab Spring is that that alone is not enough anymore -- they can’t take heart from the security issues and set the rest aside.”

In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, Wittes said, Egypt won’t be stable unless it has a representative and accountable government. The calculation that President Barack Obama’s administration makes about its relationship with Middle East autocrats “has to be different today,” she said.

Mursi’s decrees came without notice to Clinton, who had met with him the previous day to negotiate the Gaza cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Nuland said.

Though Mursi adjusted his decree yesterday, he left intact an order to re-investigate top former officials over the killing of protesters last year and an order to fire the Mubarak-era public prosecutor.

Mursi’s move to control the constitutional process is most significant, said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.

Shaping Constitution

U.S. officials have repeatedly said they want to see a constitution that is inclusive. Telhami said his concerns include the role of religion, Islamic law and the rights of women and minorities.

“Those are issues that are critical and, in the end, that’s where the battle should be,” Telhami said in an interview. “If you have a constitution that limits the freedom of large number of Egyptians, that’s when the U.S. will be forced to act, because that’s a position it can’t afford to be associated with.”

Underlying the political upheaval is a daunting economic reality as last year’s uprisings left the country with depleted foreign reserves, a devastated tourism industry and rising youth unemployment. Egypt’s pound weakened yesterday the most in a year and the government canceled a treasury-bond auction amid concern about violent protests.

International Monetary Fund officials hinted that violence stirred by Mursi’s decree could imperil a $4.8 billion loan that had won preliminary approval, state-run Ahram Online reported.

‘Democratic Resolution’

The Obama administration supports the IMF deal as well as continued U.S. aid for Egypt “but obviously, I think, everybody’s watching now that this current set of issues has a democratic resolution,” Nuland said yesterday.

Egypt’s precarious economic situation could give Western powers some leverage on Mursi’s direction, said Alex Vatanka, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington policy group.

“They have one problem that plays to the West,” Vatanka said in an interview. “Cash money.” While the withdrawal of U.S. aid alone probably wouldn’t be enough to sway Mursi, the White House could work with other allies, including the European Union, Persian Gulf countries and Turkey, Vatanka said.

Withdrawing U.S. aid, as Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, has suggested, would be a “huge confrontational act,” in a complex situation, said Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington policy group. The U.S. is dealing with many related issues, including Iran and Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S., the EU and Israel.

‘Question Mark’

Shiite Muslim Iran has hailed the Gaza cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which it arms and supports, as a victory, Abdo said. The Obama administration might see Mursi and Sunni Muslim Egypt as a potential counterbalance to Iran, she said.

The problem is that “there’s a big question mark hanging over Mursi,” whether he’s a pragmatic partner or someone given to bold power grabs, Abdo said in an interview.

Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood party he once headed have previously seized greater power after publicly popular steps. The Brotherhood initially said it wouldn’t field a presidential candidate, then changed its mind after sweeping the first election. After getting a domestic boost for his handling of an attack in the Sinai, Mursi dismissed rivals in the Egyptian security apparatus.

‘Geopolitical Partnership’

It’s been hard for the U.S., which hasn’t had formal ties with the Brotherhood, to get a grip on Mursi, Abdo said.

Following the Gaza accord, the New York Times reported that an “unlikely new geopolitical partnership” was developing between Obama and Mursi. Mursi’s subsequent power grab casts doubt on the durability of that relationship, U.S. officials said in interviews Nov. 25 and yesterday.

The Gaza cease-fire is better described as a time-out unless talks that began yesterday in Cairo yield an unexpected breakthrough, said one official, who spoke anonymously to discuss classified reporting on arms supplies to Hamas. It will last, the official said, until the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza can restock its arsenal of rockets.

The official and a second one, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. assessments of Mursi’s likely course, said any serious Egyptian effort to cut Hamas’s supply lines from Iran through Egypt’s Sinai could erode Mursi’s Islamist and Arab credentials and test the capabilities and allegiance of Egypt’s still-powerful military.

Mursi, both officials said, appears to be betting the administration won’t back away from him the way it abandoned his predecessor, former President Hosni Mubarak, so long as he maintains what they called a cold peace with Israel.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at

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