Egypt challenges Obama’s Arab Spring philosophy

Obama’s resistance to halting US support effectively gives him the role of a bystander issuing strongly worded statements.
Obama’s resistance to halting US support effectively gives him the role of a bystander issuing strongly worded statements.

WASHINGTON — As Arab Spring democracy uprisings spread across the Middle East, President Obama’s response to the political unrest has been to voice support for people seeking representative governments but to limit the role the United States will play to shape those efforts.

The president’s philosophy of limited engagement is facing perhaps its toughest test in Egypt, where the nation’s first democratically elected president was ousted by military forces with deep, decades-long ties to the United States.

Obama’s resistance to suspending US support for Egypt’s military — $1.3 billion in annual aid — even after the military-backed interim government led crackdowns last week that left more than 600 people dead and thousands more injured, leaves the White House with little leverage, effectively relegating the president to the role of a bystander issuing strongly worded statements. The US position has also stirred up anti-American sentiment in Egypt, with Morsi supporters accusing the United States of failing to live up to its own democratic values by allowing an elected leader to be pushed aside.


The president insists the United States stands with Egyptians seeking a democratic government. But he says America could not determine Egypt’s future and would not ‘‘take sides with any political party or political figure.’’

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Steven Cook, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Obama’s ‘‘middle-splitting’’ approach for Egypt undercuts US support for democracy in the region.

‘‘The idea that we can influence the trajectory of the politics is foolish,’’ Cook said. ‘‘But to have not been consistent in emphasizing our own values in this situation is a mistake. We should stick to the principles of democracy and recognition for the rule of law.’’

However, the US relationship with Egypt has long required Washington to ignore the country’s repressive politics in exchange for regional stability. For 30 years, the United States propped up Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak in part to ensure that he maintained Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, one of only two such accords in the Arab world.

But Obama abandoned Mubarak in 2011, when millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand an end to his rule. Mubarak eventually resigned, clearing the way for Egypt’s first democratic elections and inspiring prodemocracy protests in other countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.


The United States has consistently voiced support for the popular uprisings and in some cases demanded that autocratic leaders leave power. In Libya, the United States joined with allies to set up a no-fly zone to help opposition forces oust longtime leader Moammar Khadafy. And in Syria, the United States has levied economic sanctions and approved light weaponry for rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s government, though it has done little to stop the civil war that has left more than 100,000 people dead.

But throughout the Arab Spring, the White House has been wary of getting too deeply involved in setting up new governments in the region.

Obama’s philosophy is driven in part by concerns that the governments formed after the Arab Spring uprisings may be more detrimental to American interests than the autocratic regimes they replace.