WASHINGTON – Egypt’s latest bloodshed has underlined what experts say is the weakened influence of the United States, which turned a blind eye to a coup while advocating a return to democracy.
The United States has struggled to develop a coherent approach to Egypt since veteran President Hosni Mubarak, a close ally, was deposed in 2011.
Washington placed little faith in his elected successor, Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist, and was careful not to criticize the military when it overthrew him.
Nevertheless, on Wednesday the United States “strongly” condemned the military’s crackdown on supporters of Morsi and urged the military to show restraint.
“Today’s events are deplorable and they run counter to Egyptian aspirations for peace, inclusion and genuine democracy,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters. Kerry urged the army-installed authorities to end quickly a one-month state of emergency and to work with all sides to hold new elections.
The crackdown came in direct defiance of repeated appeals by the United States, including phone calls by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Hours before the crackdown, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf again called publicly on Egyptian authorities “to allow peaceful protests.”
But the United States has refused to describe the army’s July 3 overthrow of Morsi, an Islamist who was Egypt’s first democratically elected president, as a coup.
The designation would oblige the United States to cut off some $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.
While the United States officially did not support the coup, Kerry earlier this month said the army was trying to “restore democracy” in ousting the Muslim Brotherhood president.
Kerry later backtracked, saying that he supported dialogue among all sides in Egypt and a democratic transition.
However, Kerry had also praised the military in the run-up to the coup, telling a Senate hearing in April that the army has been “incredibly responsible” and helped prevent a civil war in 2011. “I think the military has been the best investment that America has made in years in that region,” Kerry said.
John McCain, a senator from the Republican Party who has called for the United States to use the term “coup,” wrote on Twitter: “As we predicted and feared, chaos in Cairo. Sec Kerry praising the military takeover didn’t help.”
“The United States finds itself in a very awkward situation with regard to the development in Egypt because of course the United States has very low influence over what happens in that country,” said Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.
Ibish said that the aid was effectively a subsidy to U.S. defense contractors and also guaranteed that Egypt remained one of two Arab countries to maintain a peace treaty with U.S. ally Israel.
“So if the U.S. cut that aid off, the Egyptians could say . . . ‘We feel free to re-evaluate our relationship with that agreement, because the broker has just broken their words,’ ” he said.
Ibish said that many U.S. policymakers had presumed that Egypt, as a majority Muslim nation, would naturally support Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
“Then they discovered that there is far more opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood than they had expected,” Ibish said. “So they have been trying to kind of figure out how to promote democracy when there are two sides in Egypt that see democracy in completely different ways and differently than the United States.”