Experts Tuesday sharply criticized the Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt and argued that its lack of assertiveness has left civil society groups out in the cold and exacerbated the country’s destabilization.
U.S. officials have condemned the violence stemming from a crackdown by state security forces and attacks by extremist elements of the Muslim Brotherhood after the military ousted Brotherhood leader and former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on July 3. More than 800 people have died in the violence since protesters swarmed the streets of Cairo calling for an end to Morsi’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
However, experts on the region said at the National Press Club that the overall U.S. response has been tepid.
"The U.S. has done and said very little," said Michele Dunne, vice president of the Atlantic Council, adding that it "has stuck very closely to whoever was in power."
Dunne said the United States essentially backed former dictator Hosni Mubarak before his downfall in 2011, then slowly shifted its support to the democratically elected Morsi before reluctantly siding with the military in Egypt’s current crisis. That approach has left U.S. officials with few options, said Dunne, who has advocated for the immediate withdrawal of $1.2 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt’s military.
"These discussions of cutting aid are not very credible because the U.S. did not cut off aid when it should have," she said.
The Military Times reports that the White House could announce as early as this week that it will suspend a shipment of Apache helicopters to Egypt valued at about $500 million, but is unlikely to take further steps. The United States has already cut off shipments of F-16 fighter jets and canceled joint military exercises in an attempt to dissuade Egypt’s military from more repression.
President Barack Obama told CNN Thursday that his administration is "doing a full evaluation" of its relationship with Egypt, adding that there is "no doubt that we can't return to business as usual, given what's happened."
Still, Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracies, raised concerns that Obama’s comments would again ring hollow.
"I would fear that remarks by the president last week will be a repeat of the president saying the right thing but being unwilling to back that up with policy," McInerney said.
McInerney said in an interview after the press conference that Egyptian civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are vital to developing democratic institutions and offering an alternative to parties like the Brotherhood more prone to authoritarianism, have received scant support from the Obama administration and international community.
The United States waited for months to respond to the raids of NGO offices by the vestiges of the Mubarak regime in 2011, which are now being perpetuated by the Egyptian military, McInerney told the Free Beacon.
"It should be made clearer to the Egyptian authorities, including the Egyptian military and security services, that this kind of crackdown is not acceptable, and that it is a priority and it is a top concern of the U.S.," he said.
"The U.S. has failed repeatedly to make that clear."
Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, noted Egypt’s strategic position in the region as the overseer of mass oil reserves flowing through the Suez Canal and the manufacturing hub for several countries.
Instability in Egypt has emboldened al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups in the Sinai Peninsula near Israel and drawn the military’s attention away from economic reforms, with devastating consequences for the region and its people, she said.
While McInerney pointed out that constitutional amendments proposed by Egypt’s interim government—such as removing a clause that bars former members of the Mubarak regime from serving in government for 10 years— are not encouraging, Dunne said the United States can still exercise a sliver of influence through its security relationship with Egypt. That relationship goes back decades and supplants billions in aid from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, she argued.
Additionally, "megatrends" such as the Egyptian youth’s anger at unemployment and concerns about human rights will not go away even after scheduled elections next year that are expected to be tightly controlled by the military, Dunne said.
"We just can’t give up on Egypt," she said.
"There will be more phases, but Egypt still has a chance for democracy."