August 15, 2013

White House 'strongly condemns' Egyptian crackdown

The Associated Press

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Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a statement on the ongoing situation in Egypt before the start of a press briefing at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. Kerry said the violence in Egypt is deplorable and is a serious blow to reconciliation efforts. He says it runs counter to Egyptians' aspirations for peace. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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A wounded protester lies on the ground as Egyptian security forces clear the smaller of the two sit-ins by supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, near the Cairo University campus in Giza, Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. Egyptian security forces, backed by armored cars and bulldozers, moved on Wednesday to clear two sit-in camps by supporters of the country's ousted President Mohammed Morsi, showering protesters with tear gas as the sound of gunfire rang out at both sites. (AP Photo/Imad Abdul Rahman)

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"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."


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Additional Photos

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Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi clash with security forces near the largest sit-in by supporters of Morsi in the eastern Nasr City district of Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. Egyptian police in riot gear swept in with armored vehicles and bulldozers Wednesday to clear the sit-in camps set up by supporters of the country's ousted Islamist president in Cairo, showering protesters with tear gas as the sound of gunfire rang out. (AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zeid)


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