Monday, July 8, 2013

Obama's No Terrorist But Morsi Ouster Means Change

The past few days have seen accusations by Egyptian demonstrators that President Obama has been "supporting terrorists" (see also here and here).  Rather than the normal partisan hackery, these accusations come from frustrated liberal Egyptians upset that the Obama administration recognized and worked with the Islamist-aligned government of ex-President Mohamed Morsi.  Liberal Egyptians are no fans of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and millions of them protested on June 30th to demand change, leading to Morsi's ouster last Wednesday.

Ironically, the Obama administration's decision to work with the Morsi administration was motivated by previous experience.  In 2006, Palestinians held legislative elections in which Hamas (an ideological sibling of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) won a surprising 74 out of 132 parliament seats, versus only 45 by the Fatah party (favored by the United States).  At the time, the George W. Bush administration gave Hamas the cold shoulder.  President Bush stated flatly that "the United States does not support political parties that want to destroy our ally, Israel, and that people must renounce that part of their platform."  This policy attracted criticism since it ignored the will of a majority of Palestinians and impaired America's ability to influence outcomes in Gaza, including the 2007 violent takeover by Hamas. 

After the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) recognized Mohamed Morsi as the winner of Egyptian presidential election on June 30, 2012, the Obama administration tried to avoid the missteps of 2006.  President Obama called President Morsi to congratulate him and said he was interested in "working together with the new Egyptian president and all Egyptian political groups."  This was a marked shift from the Bush administration which, while working with Muslim Brotherhood-aligned parliamentarians was not nearly as conciliatory to Islamist movements when they gained real power, as Hamas did in 2006.  In addition to signalling a marked change of approach from the Bush era, part of the Obama administration's intent was to respect the "will of the people" in Egypt who had elected Mohamed Morsi by majority vote.  

This week's harsh criticism by Egyptians of the Obama administration is thus frustrating to many Washington policy makers.  Washington is criticized for not working with Hamas in 2006, but also for recognizing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012.  The Obama administration's decision to work with the Brotherhood was intended to support democracy and respect the will of the people in the region - a stance the US has been criticized for not taking towards Hamas.  However, The US is now being criticized for not supporting liberal causes when they contradicted the platform of the duly elected leader of Egypt. 

The question of whether the US should support illiberal winners of free and fair elections is hardly a new one.*  However, it is a question which comes into renewed focus as Washington attempts to re-posture itself for a post-Morsi Egypt.  While liberals now have control of the narrative, Muslim Brotherhood supporters remain a major player in Egyptian politics.  

The United States thus finds itself in a catch-22 with regards to Middle East diplomacy.  Urbanization, social media, and the Arab Spring have prompted a need for the United States to have deeper relationships with multiple constituencies in Middle Eastern countries.  These constituencies are diverse, shift positions frequently, and often do not agree with one another on policy matters.  But the tradeoff for relationships with antagonistic constituencies is a less-decisive policy.  Policy-by-alignment will now give way to policy-by-consensus building in the Middle East.  It is no longer enough to have strong alignment with government policy alone.  The United States must now also have policy resonance with NGOs, civil society, political opposition, and citizen constituencies.  

Regardless of whether calling President Obama a terrorist supporter for working with President Morsi is fair (it's obviously not), the United States will now need to find a balance between resonating with multiple constituencies and taking the decisive policy stances of the past.

*See here for a political science take on the issue.

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