June 25, 2012
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, expressing relief on Sunday that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate will be Egypt’s next president, voiced cautious optimism that the choice could keep the country’s rocky transition to democracy on track.
The election results dissipated mounting fears inside the administration that the country’s election commission would invalidate the recent presidential runoff and declare a former air force general, Ahmed Shafik, the next president. Officials were concerned that such a move would set off violent protests among more than 100,000 Egyptians who had gathered in Tahrir Square to demand that the military cede power to a civilian government as promised.
With that danger defused, at least for the moment, the White House called on Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, "to advance national unity by reaching out to all parties and constituencies in consultations about the formation of a new government." A White House statement also signaled to Egypt’s ruling generals, who dissolved the Islamist-led Parliament, that it looked "forward to the completion of a transition to a democratically elected government."
"The message to both: Don’t mess this up, please!" said Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa program. "For the U.S., the priority is that the transition proceeds smoothly, without violence and with a minimum of instability. But it does not have significant leverage on events insofar as the West is distrusted by all sides in Egypt."
For President Obama, who telephoned both Mr. Morsi and General Shafik on Sunday, the crisis under way in Egypt has put him in an awkward position: champion of America’s longtime foe, and critic of America’s longtime ally.
In calling, as the White House also did on Friday, for the Egyptian military to quickly hand over power to a democratically elected civilian government, the Obama administration continued its defense of the Arab street — and by default, the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that has called for greater use of Islamic law and has allied itself with hard-liners.
At the same time, the administration was chastising the Egyptian military, which, paradoxically, has for 30 years served as the bulwark protecting a critical American concern in the Middle East: the 1979 Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
On Sunday, the combination of the growing, angry crowds in Tahrir Square and warnings from administration and international community may have influenced the military to avoid a potentially bloody showdown over the presidency, analysts said.
Leading American lawmakers had warned that Washington’s decades-old relationship with the Egyptian military, the recipient of some $1.3 billion in American aid, could be threatened if the generals maintained their refusal to honor the election results. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta had been in touch with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s top military officer and de facto head of state.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke by phone with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, twice last week, on Monday and again on Friday. One senior military aide declined to discuss the substance of the calls but said broadly that the two officers discussed the situation in Egypt "with regard to elections and security issues in the Sinai."
The Egyptian military’s recognition of Mr. Morsi, while symbolically important, does not rescind the military’s decree of an interim constitution stripping the new president of most of his power, several analysts said.
"The presidency is a gift from SCAF, and can be removed very easily by SCAF," said Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, using the acronym for the Supreme Council of Armed Forces in Egypt. "There are no institutional guarantees for civilian government and we should not, therefore, become overly excited."
"The U.S. needs to continue to push for a military that is subservient to civilians," Mr. Husain said. "There are currently no incentives for the military junta to hand over power."
The American ambassador to Egypt, Anne W. Patterson, had advised officials in Washington against making a lot of noise publicly until after the election decision, for fear of exacerbating the already tense political brinkmanship under way in Cairo, one senior administration official said.
Ever since the democracy movement began in Egypt last year, Mr. Obama has struggled to strike the right balance between stability and democracy. But in recent months, he has increasingly come down on the side of the Arab street, explicitly warning the military that they are only a caretaker government, not a military junta.
"We will stand with the Egyptian people as they pursue their aspirations for democracy, dignity, and opportunity, and fulfill the promise of their revolution," the White House statement said on Sunday.
But the strategy is a high-risk one, because the major beneficiary is the Muslim Brotherhood, whose aims do not necessarily coincide with American national security interests.
"It is going to be very difficult for us to work with a Muslim Brotherhood, particularly since we have been isolating and ignoring them for the last 30 years," Edward S. Walker Jr., former United States ambassador to Egypt, said Sunday on the CNN program "State of the Union."
Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said on Sunday that during his most recent visits to Egypt, Mr. Morsi had committed to protecting fundamental freedoms, including women’s rights, minority rights and the right to free expression and assembly. Mr. Morsi also said he understood the importance of post-revolutionary relationships with America and Israel, Mr. Kerry added in a statement.
"Ultimately, just as it is anywhere in the world," Mr. Kerry said, "actions will matter more than words."
Thom Shanker contributed reporting.