Wants to balance push for democracy with control over Islamists

In the days before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived here on Saturday, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet Egypt’s newly elected Islamist President, she planned to deliver a forceful public speech about democracy.

But with the new President still struggling to wrest power from Egypt’s top generals, there were too many questions, too many pitfalls and too little new for Ms. Clinton to offer, said several people briefed on the process. After rejecting at least three different drafts, the administration called off the speech days before its scheduled delivery, these people said.

The administration’s struggle to define a message here reflects its quandary with how to deal with a rapidly shifting contest for power whose outcome remains to be seen. Policymakers are struggling to balance a public push for a democratic Egypt against a desire to maintain long-term ties with factions — the generals and the Islamists — in a context where almost any U.S. statement is sure to provoke a backlash.

The generals have repeatedly rebuffed U.S. pressure. The new President, Mohammed Morsy, and the other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood still harbour deep doubts about the U.S. agenda. Some of Egypt’s secular politicians are even accusing the U.S., implausibly, of conspiring to back the Brotherhood. A secular political party and a Christian group have called for a protest outside the U.S. Embassy against what they assert to be U.S. support for the Islamists.

All of which has lent what some U.S. officials say is a sense of futility about Washington’s muffled voice in the future of a strategic ally.

“In some ways all the talk in Washington about what to do in Egypt is incredibly inefficient,” said Peter Mandaville, a political scientist at George Mason University who until recently advised the State Department on Islamist politics in the region. “At a time of virtually zero U.S. influence, we don’t need to waste so much time figuring out how to try to get the Egyptian people to like us.”

In brief remarks after her meeting with Mr. Morsy, Ms. Clinton repeatedly commended the Egyptian people on the achievement of the country’s first free presidential election and emphasised that Egyptians alone would decide their future. She said she would work with Congress and the Egyptian government on the details of delivering a $1 billion aid package that President Barack Obama promised a year ago and that Egypt desperately needs. And she talked about the importance of peace treaty with Israel and the protection of individual and minority rights.

But she alluded only lightly to the military’s recent grab for power, or its failure to deliver on its promise hand power to civilians by July 1. She cited the need for “consensus” on the subjects of Parliament and the constitution so that Mr. Morsy could “assert the full authority of the presidency”.

She said she planned to meet on Sunday with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the top military commander, and State Department officials have said she will urge him to expedite the transition. But the closest she came to publicly calling for the military to exit power was when she said the U.S. would work “to support the military’s return to a purely national security role”.

Officials say that the generals have repeatedly ignored U.S. pressure, including the threat that the United States might end its $1.5-billion a year in economic assistance to Egypt, including $1.3 billion in military aid.

But there is domestic resistance in the United States to cutting the aid, which is delivered in the form of contracts with U.S. defence companies. And State Department officials argue that continuing the aid provides important channels of communication and potential leverage to preserve other U.S. priorities, like a workable alliance and the peace agreement with Israel.

‘‘Cutting the aid is a very blunt tool,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a researcher at the Century Foundation. “You can’t bluff, and you can only use it once.”

Many U.S. officials earnestly want to support Egyptian democracy, said Mr. Mandaville, the former State Department adviser. But the history of suspicion toward the Islamists may be hard to overcome.

“Every bone in the body of the U.S. foreign policy establishment,” he said, “is going to feel more comfortable with the idea that there is still a strong military looking over these guys and looking out for U.S. interests in Egypt and the region.” — New York Times News Service

More In: International | News