WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s sharp criticism Wednesday of Egypt’s ruling generals and their declared state of emergency reflects the rising American fear of prolonged military rule in the most populous Arab nation.
The interim government led by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi killed scores of demonstrators in the most violent crackdown against opposition protests since Egypt’s elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was deposed early last month.
Egyptian military leaders, who have pledged to guide the country toward new elections, also declared a month-long state of emergency, imposing curfews and other security measures that in Egypt have traditionally lasted well beyond their original expiration date.
The moves evoked the three-decade rule of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who resigned in February 2011 amid anti-government demonstrations at the more hopeful dawn of what was then known as the Arab Spring. The U.S. government lost an ally, if an autocratic one, and ever since has struggled to navigate the country’s ascendant Islamist politics as well as the military’s resistance to change.
“The promise of the 2011 revolution has simply never been fully realized,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday at the State Department. “And the final outcome of that revolution is not yet decided. It will be shaped in the hours ahead, in the days ahead. It will be shaped by the decisions which all of Egypt’s political leaders make now and in these days ahead.”
Kerry’s warning came a few hours after the White House issued a statement saying that the violent repression “runs directly counter to the pledges by the interim government to pursue reconciliation.”
Speaking from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where President Barack Obama is vacationing, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the administration “strongly condemns” the violence and opposes the emergency decree, which under Mubarak lasted the length of his tenure.
“The violence that we saw overnight is a step in the wrong direction,” Earnest said. “It is an indication that they’re not currently following through on their promise to transition back to a democratically elected civilian government, that they’re not committed to an inclusive process.”
But the words the administration used, as well as the one it continued to avoid to describe Egypt’s abrupt change of government — “coup” — suggested that Obama and his advisers are out of ideas for how to exert even modest influence over events on the ground.
A senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday that the Pentagon is re-evaluating a joint training exercise that was scheduled to take place in Egypt in September. The yearly exercise, called Bright Star, was suspended after the 2011 revolt. U.S. officials were hopeful it would resume this year.
Earnest said the administration would continue to avoid describing Morsi’s ouster last month as a coup, a legal designation that would trigger a suspension of the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt and the international credibility that comes with it.
As wealthy Gulf states interested in suppressing Islamist politics send billions of dollars to Egypt’s military government, the relatively small amount of U.S. aid represents what officials say is the only financial and diplomatic leverage the administration can still bring to bear in Egypt.
The administration’s refusal to declare the July 3 military intervention a coup has angered Egypt’s opposition, while its failure to fully endorse Sissi has prompted accusations of American betrayal from the generals in charge.
“The nature of our policy is not to go all in on one side,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “We have to be for a process, not people, in these countries.”
Obama imagined a different relationship with Egypt and the wider Middle East when he took office.
In Cairo just months after his first inauguration, he pledged a “new beginning” with the Muslim world, urging Middle Eastern leaders to embrace democratic reform as a way of making their countries “more stable, successful and secure.” But he also warned that “there are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power.”
“Once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others,” he said, adding that “you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion.”
The Arab Spring forced those reforms through street protest, rather than a political process, in a swath of Arab countries, including Egypt. Autocrats in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen tumbled, and Syria collapsed into civil war that has so far killed more than 100,000 people.
In Egypt, senior administration officials have concluded that the political transition may take a generation to work through, sometimes violently and with only slight American influence.
“This doesn’t sort itself out in a year or two,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe an internal assessment.
The crackdown Wednesday confirmed some of the Obama administration’s worst fears about what might happen should the political standoff in the streets endure — and about the limits of American diplomacy in the region.
Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, among other senior U.S. officials, had repeatedly called for restraint and nonviolence. Kerry, in particular, had publicly cast the military leaders as trustworthy stewards of Egypt’s fledgling democracy.
He was widely criticized for telling a television interviewer this month that the military, in pushing aside Morsi, was “restoring democracy” and held a public mandate to do so. He quickly backtracked, repeating the U.S. call for a swift transition to elected civilian rule.
As the administratin appealed for calm last week, two Republican lawmakers, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, met with Egyptian military and other officials. On Wednesday, they lamented that the situation in Cairo had deteriorated.
“As we predicted and feared, chaos in Cairo,” McCain tweeted Wednesday. “Sec. Kerry praising the military takeover didn’t help.”
“I fear that without a quick reversal of current trends, Egypt may be on its way to becoming a failed state,” Graham said in a statement Wednesday.
Neither Kerry nor other U.S. officials have said that Morsi, whom Obama once declined to call an ally, should return to office as a way of restoring order. While the public American message has been that Egyptians should choose their leader, U.S. officials have conveyed privately for weeks that Morsi should not return.
The administration distanced itself from Morsi all spring, following the Egyptian leader’s failure to address economic reforms that Kerry and others told him represented a last chance for international financial and political support.
Kerry met with Morsi during a brief trip to Egypt in March, when he released $250 million in American aid and promised more if Morsi did the right things. On Wednesday, Kerry directed his instructions to change at Egypt’s current rulers.
“The interim government and the military, which together possess the preponderance of power in this confrontation, have a unique responsibility to prevent further violence and to offer constructive options for an inclusive, peaceful process across the entire political spectrum,” he said. “There will not be a solution through further polarization. There can only be a political solution by bringing people together for the political solution.”
Amy Hawthorne, a former State Department official who worked on Egypt policy until last year, said the Obama administration has no good options in response to Egypt’s crisis. But she said it could have responded more forcefully and coherently from the start.
“I think we should stop talking about a democratic transition in Egypt as something that is happening,” said Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “I don’t think there’s any democratic transition unfolding right now.”