Egypt Violence Upsets White House Policy

Aug 14, 2013
Originally published on August 14, 2013 3:20 pm

As the death toll mounts today in Egypt, it also upends the Obama administration’s delicate balance on the Egyptian crisis.

The White House has steadfastly refused to call the Egyptian army’s ouster and arrest of former President Mohammed Morsi a coup.

At the same time, the administration has urged the Egyptian military to move forward quickly with constitutional reform and free elections.

But that balancing act has to deal with a new shock today, as Egyptian forces storm two camps where supporters of former president had been holding peaceful sit-ins.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. Egypt's vice president, Nobel Prize-winner Mohamed ElBaradei, has resigned on a violent day in that country.

HOBSON: The White House is condemning the move earlier today by the Egyptian government. Police stormed two sprawling camps where supports of former President Mohammed Morsi have been holding peaceful sit-ins. Morsi is a leader of the Islamist political group the Muslim Brotherhood, and supporters wanted him restored to power, saying he is the legitimately elected head of the country.

The army ousted him in July, and the White House has refused to call that a coup. But today's events are upending the administration's delicate balancing act on Egypt. We spoke a little while ago with Michael Hanna, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and he started by telling us more about what happened there today.

MICHAEL HANNA: Well, it's been a fairly chaotic and bloody day, and the authorities decided to clear the protests by force, using live ammunition and other means, a clearing operation for protests that are really thousands of people large.

HOBSON: But these were also being described as just peaceful sit-ins, right?

HANNA: It's clear at this point that they have been overwhelmingly peaceful. There has been some use - and allegations of use today, and in other days - of weapons. But, of course, the responsibility lies largely with the authorities to exercise proportionate force, even if they are faced with fire from the other side. And the disproportionate death toll, even the more conservative estimates, show a very disproportionate death toll that says a lot about the kind of force used today by the Egyptian police.

HOBSON: Yeah. And how are people reacting to that? The numbers are in the hundreds from the Muslim Brotherhood. That's what they're saying.

HANNA: Yeah. And I think it's - I'm cautious as to accepting any of those numbers at the moment, but, you know, in Cairo in particular, I would hazard a guess to say that this still has pretty robust public support, that many people's patience with the sit-in had run out. Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-Morsi crowds remain resilient, and their fervor has obviously increased over the past weeks.

And they are sizable. They are not a problem that can be solved through the application of force and violence alone. This is a very dangerous decision by the interim authorities here.

HOBSON: You focus on U.S. policy in that region. Was it clear, do you think, that the White House knew that this was going to happen, that this crackdown was going to take place?

HANNA: There have been lots of signals that this was likely imminent. The timing, the exact timing, was obviously a moving target. There have been continuous efforts to dissuade the Egyptian authorities regarding the wisdom of this type of approach to the protest sites.

HOBSON: That Washington would not have wanted them to do this?

HANNA: No, absolutely not. I think the Obama administration has been consistent in conjunction with other allies - including the European Union and others - that securitizing the situation and pursuing a solely security approach to what is a political crisis was unlikely to solve the situation, and that what would have been a preferred path would have been one of de-escalation, political negotiation for a political solution to this problem.

And, of course, from my perspective, this problem grows now. It doesn't actually become smaller and more tractable now that the death toll mounts.

HOBSON: What kind of leverage, then, does Washington have with the Egyptian interim government?

HANNA: It's hard to quantify, obviously, and an event like today suggests that the considerations and the domestic imperatives of these interim leaders is going to come first and foremost. They do care what the international community thinks, but not enough to really deviate from what they believe is their preferred and only course. And whether that's true or not, I think this latest incident proves some stubborn determination in the face of many warnings from the United States and others in the international community.

HOBSON: What happens next, here, Michael Hanna? What do you see happening in Egypt going forward?

HANNA: I think the problem probably metastasizes now. We've seen a host of reprisal attacks today, mainly focused on Christians throughout the country, and on an unprecedented scale against churches and businesses and homes. I think that's likely to continue. I think the violence in Sinai is probably likely to spike. And I'm - I would imagine we will see the adoption of insurgent tactics throughout the country and growing militancy and radicalization.

Morality aside, of course, there are huge concerns there, but just on the level of efficacy, I think this approach will fail.

HOBSON: Michael Hanna, the U.S. has a lot of interests in the region, not least the Egyptians continuing to police the Sinai Peninsula. Where does U.S. policy go from here?

HANNA: Yeah. I mean, I think the United States obviously is in a delicate position. It wants to both express its displeasure and condemnation of the events. It wants to capture the complexity of the current political and security situation. And at the same time, it wants to maintain its channels of communication, which are consistent with both the Egyptian interim authorities and the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

And I think the near-term goal is obviously not something as grand as political reconciliation, but really an attempt to de-escalate. And the exact mechanisms for that become much more difficult. They tried in recent days to pull together a multilateral diplomatic effort to try to bring the sides together, but that's fallen apart, and obviously, that challenge becomes much more difficult after what has been a disastrous day.

HOBSON: Michael Hanna is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and he joined us from Cairo, Egypt. Michael, thank you so much.

HANNA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.