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Why the U.S. can do so little about Egypt

August 15, 2013, at 2:42 PM

With scores murdered and thousands injured, it is hard to square the United States's deciding to cancel a military exercise along with lukewarm language condemning violence with anything resembling a noble and liberal strategy for Egypt. One reason for this is that whatever the U.S. strategy may be, our hard and soft power spheres don't correspond with the fundamental disputes that drove the military coup and the earlier ouster of Hosni Mubarak. On a deeper level, President Obama believes that secular Arab nationalism ought to take root without the hidden hand of a Western power. Here are six other limitations on what the U.S. can "do" with Egypt.

1. The Egyptian military holds all of the cards. And the guns. And the credibility with non-Islamists. It is not clear whether Egyptian nationalists prioritize the protection of the rights of Islamist minorities, which is one reason why the military can act with relative impunity and with immunity (to an extent) from a blow to their standing.

2. The U.S. relies on Egypt for counter-terrorism intelligence, and this relationship has been more or less continuous since well before September 11. Countries (like Russia) have used intelligence sharing as an excuse to get away with activities that diverge from U.S. policy interests. They understand that, since 9/11, the U.S. government has invested heavily in the concept of a grand global alliance against terrorism, and that the relative importance of a country's intelligence relationship with U.S. counterparts is much higher.

3. The U.S. requires Egyptian cooperation to speed U.S. Navy vessels through the Suez Canal.

4. The U.S. cannot alienate Egypt to an extent that the government (in whatever form) decides to deliberately slow down U.S. engagement with Iran. President Obama's Iran policy is predicated on a synchronization of interests between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

5. As has been pointed out before, U.S. military aid to Egypt is not nearly as critical to Egypt's military as it once was.

6. The U.S. has little credibility with Egyptians. It's not that the U.S. didn't label the military coup a coup; whether the Morsi government itself was a transitional experiment, an Islamist bridge to a non-Islamist democracy, and whether the competition for power is part of a struggle that simply cannot be resolved in the space of a few short years is very much open for debate inside of Egypt, probably more so than outside of it.

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