Obama to Egypt: All sides should step back

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 1, 2013 

Mideast Egypt

Opponents of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi chant slogans during a protest outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt


— His options limited, President Barack Obama on Monday called on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to work with his opposition to resolve unrest in Egypt, warning that U.S. aid to the country is tied to its commitment to democracy.

Obama said the U.S. is concerned about the turmoil in Egyptian streets and is “monitoring it very closely.” He called for restraint on all sides, noting that although massive protests against Morsi’s government have not erupted into the level of violence many had feared, “the potential remains there.”

And he denounced reports of women being assaulted in the protests.

“For those who are participating in these protests or marches, assaulting women does not qualify as peaceful protests,” Obama said while traveling in Tanzania.

An American citizen and at least three other people died Friday in demonstrations in Egypt, and the burning of photos of U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson underscored the rising criticism that the United States faces in the country.

Analysts said the administration – which has struggled to find its footing in the region in the wake of Arab Spring uprisings – finds itself with few options, other than moral persuasion.

“The administration bet that by supporting an elected government in Egypt it would help further a transition to a stable democracy. However, that government’s total mismanagement of the country made stability and therefore democracy impossible,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “At this point, the administration should look at Egypt as a triage case and its goals should be to see what can be done do to limit the current damage.”

Obama, who declined to support former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak as he was being forced from office, sidestepped a question of whether Morsi should step down, saying Morsi was “by all accounts” democratically elected.

But he prodded Morsi to act, saying his government had “more work to be done to create the conditions in which everybody feels that their voices are heard and that the government is responsive and truly representative.” Obama said the U.S. has encouraged Morsi’s government to reach out to the opposition and work through its issues.

“We’re going to continue to work with all parties inside of Egypt to try to channel this through legal, legitimate processes,” Obama said. “But I do think that if the situation is going to resolve itself for the benefit of Egypt over the long term, then all the parties there have to step back from maximalist positions. Democracies don’t work when everybody says it’s the other person’s fault and I want 100 percent of what I want.”

The solution has to be Egypt’s, said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Our responsibility as funders of the military, as strategic allies, is to not make ourselves the story but to hit on fundamental principles” of rule of law and democracy, Cook said. “There’s not much more we can should or can do but emphasize those principles.”

Members of Congress have questioned the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. sends to Egypt, and Obama noted the aid is based on whether the country is “following rule of law and democratic procedures.”

Under U.S. law, the secretary of state must certify that the Egyptian government is holding elections and developing policies that protect free speech and religion, though it allows the administration to waive those requirements if it deems it’s in the national interest.

“We do make decisions based on whether or not a government is listening to the opposition, maintaining a free press, maintaining freedom of assembly, not using violence or intimidation, conducting fair and free elections,” Obama said. “Those are the kinds of things that we’re examining, and we press the Egyptian government very hard on those issues.”

The unrest comes less than a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, and Obama told reporters in Tanzania that the United States’ No. 1 priority has been securing its embassies and consulates.

Email:lclark@mcclatchydc.com; twitter:@lesleyclark

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