How American Hopes for a Deal in Egypt Were Undercut

How American Hopes for a Deal in Egypt Were Undercut
Published: August 17, 2013 The New York Times

EGYPT-POLITICS-UNREST-TURKEY-DEMOCAIRO — For a moment, at least, American and European diplomats trying to defuse the volatile standoff in Egypt thought they had a breakthrough.

As thousands of Islamist supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, braced for a crackdown by the military-imposed government, a senior European diplomat, Bernardino León, told the Islamists of “indications” from the leadership that within hours it would free two imprisoned opposition leaders. In turn, the Islamists had agreed to reduce the size of two protest camps by about half.

An hour passed, and nothing happened. Another hour passed, and still no one had been released.

The Americans heightened the pressure. Two senators visiting Cairo, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, met with Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the officer who ousted Mr. Morsi and appointed the new government, and the interim prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, and pushed for the release of the two prisoners. But the Egyptians brushed them off.

You could tell people were itching for a fight,” Mr. Graham recalled in an interview. “The prime minister was a disaster. He kept preaching to me: ‘You can’t negotiate with these people. They’ve got to get out of the streets and respect the rule of law.’ I said: ‘Mr. Prime Minister, it’s pretty hard for you to lecture anyone on the rule of law. How many votes did you get? Oh, yeah, you didn’t have an election.’ ”

General Sisi, Mr. Graham said, seemed “a little bit intoxicated by power.”

The senators walked out that day, Aug. 6, gloomy and convinced that a violent showdown was looming. But the diplomats still held out hope, believing they had persuaded Egypt’s government at least not to declare the talks a failure.

The next morning, the government issued a statement declaring that diplomatic efforts had been exhausted and blaming the Islamists for any casualties from the coming crackdown. A week later, Egyptian forces opened a ferocious assault that so far has killed more than 1,000 protesters.

All of the efforts of the United States government, all the cajoling, the veiled threats, the high-level envoys from Washington and the 17 personal phone calls by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, failed to forestall the worst political bloodletting in modern Egyptian history. The generals in Cairo felt free to ignore the Americans first on the prisoner release and then on the statement, in a cold-eyed calculation that they would not pay a significant cost — a conclusion bolstered when President Obama responded by canceling a joint military exercise but not $1.5 billion in annual aid.

 The violent crackdown has left Mr. Obama in a no-win position: risk a partnership that has been the bedrock of Middle East peace for 35 years, or stand by while longtime allies try to hold on to power by mowing down opponents. From one side, the Israelis, Saudis and other Arab allies have lobbied him to go easy on the generals in the interest of thwarting what they see as the larger and more insidious Islamist threat. From the other, an unusual mix of conservatives and liberals has urged him to stand more forcefully against the sort of autocracy that has been a staple of Egyptian life for decades.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Peter Baker and Michael R. Gordon from Washington. Read full text at: How American Hopes for a Deal in Egypt Were Undercut


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