The Corner

State Department: Morsi ‘A Far Cry from an Autocrat’

After the Egyptian president claimed unprecedented powers, prompting protests by various moderate and liberal factions across the country, the U.S. State Department has this to say:

As we called for last week, when confronted with concerns about the decree that he issued, President Morsi entered into discussions with the judiciary, with other stakeholders in Egypt. As I said, I think we don’t yet know what the outcome of those are going to be, but that’s a far cry from an autocrat just saying my way or the highway.

The emanations from State’s press secretary, Victoria Nuland, are downright surreal, and I delve into them more below. I’ve noted earlier that, beginning with the Hamas-Israel cease-fire announcement last Wednesday, the U.S. State Department hasn’t stopped with the gushing praise for the Egyptian president, Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi, who, the very next day, seized an incredible amount of personal power (neutering the judiciary and protecting his own decrees from review, among other things). The State Department’s response to this event, which some deemed a usurpation equal to anything Mubarak ever perpetrated, was notably weak, refused even to criticize the president by name, or bring up any particular transgressions.

Then yesterday, the State Department’s press secretary was pressed by reporters about the U.S.’s feelings on Mubarak’s power grab; it would take real effort to make them any squishier. Nuland:

We’ve seen the public statements. It’s a little bit unclear to us as yet precisely what has been decided, what the impact is going to be, whether the various constituencies have all felt that they’ve been heard and had their views taken into account.

So frankly, Andy, at this stage in Cairo, we are seeking further information and trying to understand what’s going on. But as you’ve seen on the ground, the situation remains unclear. We want to see, as we’ve been saying, a solution to the constitutional impasse which is consultative, which is democratically achieved, which protects a positive, democratic trajectory for this constitution, protects balances of power, protects a voice for all Egyptians in this process.

She’s right that the situation remains unclear in Egypt, especially in places like Tahrir Square, because the air is filled with tear gas.

And the “balances of power” which she says she hopes Morsi will protect? You’d have an easier time finding that on the wrecks of Octavians’ triremes in Alexandria harbor than anywhere in Cairo these days.

Nuland also was asked whether the IMF and the U.S. would withhold financial aid for Egypt based on political progress, and said that “the conditionality for an IMF agreement is primarily in the economic arena, it’s not in the political arena.” As Nuland explained, it’s rare that IMF loans come with political-reform requirements, but it’s hardly unprecedented, and she continued to emphasize that, it appears, Western financial support for Egypt will be conditional on, well, financial considerations and nothing else: “We want to see Egypt continuing on the reform path to ensure that any money forthcoming from the IMF truly supports a stabilization and a revitalization of a dynamic economy based on market principles.”

One reporter then pointed out that, well, given the history of Egypt (and Third World autocrats generally), this is an absurd assumption:

QUESTION: Are you guys concerned at all that you may have created a new Mubarak in President Morsi by essentially handing him the keys to the – not to the peace process itself but to security in the area, and that, much like Mubarak did, Morsi will use that and his new gained – newly gained stature to continue to clamp down and do things that are what you would say are not democratic or in support of the values that you think the Egyptian people voted for?

MS. NULAND: I think we’ve been absolutely clear that the quality and strength of our relationship with Egypt going forward is rooted in our expectation that Egyptian leaders will take forward the goals of the revolution, the goals of the Egyptian people, to have a democratic, open country that respects the rights of all of its citizens, where there are checks and balances. We haven’t made any secret of that in our conversations with the Egyptians.

We very much appreciate, and we were clear about this too, the role that President Morsi and the Government of Egypt played in brokering the ceasefire with Gaza. As the Secretary said when she was in Cairo, this is a role that Egypt has historically played. We’re pleased to see it continuing under the Morsi Administration. That’s important for the region. But other aspects of the transition that the Egyptian people are expecting also have to go forward.

Besides the paeans to “the revolution” and “democratic” and “open” requirements (which parrot Morsi’s propaganda), it’s abundantly clear that State sees Morsi as a capable partner on Israel/Gaza, and is perfectly happy to leave Egypt in its “historical role” — which happens to involve a brutal dictator. Nuland is surely aware of this, but the reporter helpfully reminded her:

QUESTION:  . . . Let’s just talk about recent history or 20th century history. We won’t go back to the pharaohs. But based on your reading of past Egyptian leaders, starting, I guess, let’s start with Nasser, have they carried on the revolution, as you are saying that you expect Morsi to now? I mean, has any Egyptian leader not ended up doing the right thing, or do they turn – become autocrats or they get assassinated? What leads you to believe that Morsi –

MS. NULAND: Are we doing a history class here, or what?

QUESTION: You said . . . that you thought and expected that any Egyptian leader would carry through the goals and ideas of the revolution, and presumably you’re basing that on your experience with Egyptian leaders in the past. No?

MS. NULAND: We have a situation already in Egypt where, over the course of the last period, there have been decisions taken by one group or another in the Egyptian leadership structure that have been challenged by others, that have been challenged in the street, and the result has been a dialogue among them and working through this very murky legal period. As we called for last week, when confronted with concerns about the decree that he issued, President Morsi entered into discussions with the judiciary, with other stakeholders in Egypt. As I said, I think we don’t yet know what the outcome of those are going to be, but that’s a far cry from an autocrat just saying my way or the highway.

If you’re wondering how they possibly reached that conclusion about a man some have called another “new pharaoh,” the conversation continued:

QUESTION: Okay, okay. Well, maybe I misunderstood when you –


QUESTION: It was this question of what you mean when you used the word “expect.” This is an expectation that is not based on anything other than the current situation?

MS. NULAND: Correct.

For an assessment of Egypt’s situation and the Obama administration’s handling of it that’s based on something other than the current situation and the words of a duplicitous dictator, Elliott Abrams lamented yesterday in an NRO piece the fact that the U.S. has abandoned the moderates and liberals of the Arab world, a policy they relentlessly furthered yesterday. He makes the case that this is neither in line with our values nor our interests.

I won’t comment on whether the current U.S. policy is actually sensible — they have their reasons — but it remains noteworthy, even surprising, that Barack Obama is so eager to hitch his camel train to Egypt’s new autocrat. The State Department’s choice of diplomatic rhetoric is per se meaningful, and noted by Egyptian diplomats and diplomats from other Western nations (who have much more strongly condemned Morsi’s actions),  but most important, it signals what’s being said and done behind the scenes.

Patrick BrennanPatrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...


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