• 22:51
  • Thursday ,24 July 2014

Final countdown: 3 July inside the White House

By-Mohamed Elmenshawy



Thursday ,24 July 2014

Final countdown: 3 July inside the White House

The Egyptian events in the days preceding 3 July 2013 coincided with an African tour by American President Barak Obama. As he said in an afternoon news conference in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam: "We all feel concerned with what's happening in Egypt". He pointed to the importance of ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians were heard and represented by their government.

While Obama was speaking, Egypt's defence ministry made a statement giving the country's political forces a 48- hour deadline to respond to the demands of the Egyptian people or else the military would announce "a road map for the future". In Washington, the US Department of Defence refused to guess what would happen in Egypt in the next 48 hours, as it was still studying the Egyptian army's statement.
Before Obama returned from Africa, the US administration formed an Egypt Task Force to present suggestions as to what the administration should do.
A number of Egyptian affairs experts arrived at the White House (specifically at the National Security desks) to provide their opinions regarding the latest events. The Department of Defence, a big team from the State Department, Pentagon top brass and representatives of different intelligence agencies also came.
After lengthy meetings that went past 1 July, the attendees agreed that a deal between the Egyptian presidency (Mohammed Morsi) and the political opposition wouldn't end the street demonstrations, especially after Morsi in his speech clung to his legitimacy as the elected president of Egypt for four years. Many felt it was just a matter of time before Egypt's army interfered.
The US standpoint took a number of factors into consideration. First, the occurrence of a coup meant that all aid to Egypt would be halted, as per a law approved by the US Congress in 1961 banning assistance to a government which ousts an elected president. Hence, the US administration never described what happened as a "military coup". The second factor was the necessity of not letting the Egyptian army solely manage the transitional stage – there had to be a civilian face that enjoyed popularity and credibility. This would facilitate Washington's mission in not naming what happened as a "coup".
Third, no repressive methods could be used against Morsi, his high ranking advisers, Brotherhood leaders or other Islamist forces and their symbols. Finally, the Brotherhood had to be pressured to accept the new reality and become a part of the new political process which would be managed by the military.
Thus, many lengthy phone calls were made between Pentagon officials and the Egyptian defence ministry to stress nonviolence and the importance of not having a military coup. Chuck Hagel, US defence secretary, spoke with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi twice, the last of which was on Wednesday morning, hours before El-Sisi delivered his statement. The Pentagon has not revealed the details of those phone calls.
Tony Blinken, Deputy National Security Advisor, had a long phone call with Mohammed Al-Assar, El-Sisi's assistant, to discuss the accelerating developments. This call came after Obama held a two-day meeting with members of his national security team who stressed the importance of a quick and responsible return to civilian government in Egypt.
Moreover, many calls were made between senior US and Egyptian officials and Washington's influential regional partners, especially the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
After El-Sisi's statement, which included Morsi's removal and drawing general outlines for the transitional stage, Obama made an untelevised statement (on the contrary to what he did when Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011, when he spoke three times on television) in which he said, "If we considered the military's movement a coup, the US would be committed to suspend military aid to Egypt". He added that he had also directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under US law for their assistance to Egypt's government.
Because Egyptian-American relations were built on a formula of "assistance in return for cooperation", the file on Egypt's crisis was transferred to Hagel. El-Sisi had developed a relationship with his American counterpart since he became defence minister in August 2012, especially after their meeting in Cairo. Hagel continued to communicate with El-Sisi on an almost daily basis during the Egyptian crisis. Thus, Hagel became the most important channel in communication with the new rulers of Egypt as events developed.
Before reports surfaced over Morsi's detainment and that arrest orders had been issued for 300 members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political arm, Obama urged the Egyptian military to avoid "any arbitrary arrests against Morsi and his supporters".
A year later, we can conclude that the Egyptian military's leadership saw from the outset the limits of America's weak influence in its internal affairs. At the same time, Washington's policies became more based on reactions, an absence of initiative and a desire not to take any costly decisions. Also clear is its ability to deal with whoever is in Egypt's presidential palace, whether his name is Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi or Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.