The Obama administration tried Monday to step up its diplomacy in Egypt, dispatching Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to this tumultuous capital, only to discover that some of the major players won’t meet with a representative of the United States.
Instead, Burns spent the bulk of his time meeting with Transitional President Adly Mansour, Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi and Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, the three top officials who owe their positions to the military’s ouster July 3 of President Mohammed Morsi. Perhaps most important of Burns’ meetings was with Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the minister of defense and commander of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who announced Morsi’s removal from office.
But Burns could not sidestep issues that have plagued the Obama administration’s posture here, namely charges that it sided with Morsi long after he had lost the public’s confidence. Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, has come under fierce criticism for backing Morsi uncritically, most recently in a June 18 speech in which she expressed pessimism about the widely anticipated June 30 mass protests, which ended up drawing 14 million and led to the military’s intervention.
It was not clear whether Burns has attempted to meet with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secret organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency and many of whose leaders are now in custody or are being sought. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to answer when asked about Burns meeting with Brotherhood officials at her daily news briefing in Washington.
Other organizations key to the Egyptian political situation said they had rejected opportunities to meet with Burns, including the conservative Islamist Nour party and the secular Tamarod, or Rebel, movement.
Nour party spokesman Nader Bakar told McClatchy that “it was not convenient for us” to meet with Burns. Mohammed Badr, the founder of Tamarod, which claimed to have collected 22 million signatures advocating Morsi’s resignation, said on the group’s website that he turned down an invitation to meet with Burns because the United States “currently supports the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”
An official of the Nour party said his group was trying to organize negotiations between the new government, the military, Morsi’s opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood. Nour backed Morsi’s ouster but withdrew its support after Republican Guard troops fired on pro-Morsi demonstrators, killing more than 50 people a week ago.
“The situation is vey worrying,” said the official, who asked that he not be identified so as not to endanger potential talks. “Let’s all agree that we had been through an unsuccessful political round."
The volatile nature of the impasse became obvious again late Monday when security forces opened fire on pro-Morsi demonstrators in the Rabaa district of the capital. There was no immediate word on deaths, though demonstrators could be seen arriving at first aid stations in the area shortly after tear gas was fired at marches that were underway from Rabaa to the presidential palace and to the Republican Guard headquarters. Gunfire was heard later.
At a news conference, Burns urged the new government not to exclude the Brotherhood. He said the United States was concerned “about the developments of the past two weeks.” He said he was in Egypt to listen, not to broker an agreement between the nation’s warring political factions.
“I did not come with American solutions, nor did I come to lecture anyone. We know that Egyptians must forge their own path to democracy. We know that this will not mirror our own, and we will not try to impose our model on Egypt,” Burns said at the news conference, where he answered only two questions, neither from the American journalists present.
It appears unlikely any side would seek U.S. help in breaking the impasse, which threatens to engulf the nation in months of instability as Morsi supporters and opponents clash over what constitutes legitimate rule in Egypt.
Since Morsi’s ouster, his supporters and the new government have been engaged in an increasingly bitter war over whether the military intervention was legal. With each passing day, both sides ratchet up attacks on the other. On Monday, the Brotherhood vowed to shut the down the country by blocking roads. Over the weekend, the country’s prosecutor froze the assets of 14 leading Brotherhood members.
The dramatic events of the past two weeks have only underscored the United States’ declining influence here. In the last week, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have pledged a total of $12 billion in aid, dwarfing the United States’ $1.5 billion annual military and economic aid package. Protesters have burned Patterson’s photo in the streets.
“The U.S. policy toward post-Mubarak Egypt has been extremely reactive and too hesitant to use leverage at key moments when it might have made a difference,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Patterson, a celebrated diplomat within the State Department, also confronted the fall of a once-popular leader in her previous post as the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. Like Morsi, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was celebrated initially but increasingly came to be seen as an authoritarian leader as the economy sank, inflation rose and Musharraf overreached with the judiciary.
Eventually forced out of office, Musharraf now faces criminal charges in Pakistan that could result in the death penalty. As with Morsi, Patterson never criticized Musharraf publicly.