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Egyptian dilemma

Andreas Gorzewski / bkJuly 30, 2013

The West is stuck in a dilemma over Egypt - it cannot endorse Mohammed Morsi's overthrow, but neither does it want to condemn the coup. On top of that, the US and the EU barely have any leverage over Cairo.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi shout slogans in Cairo July 22, 2013. The family of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi said on Monday it would take legal action against the army, accusing it of abducting the country's first democratically-elected president. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST RELIGION)
Kairo ProtesteImage: Reuters

The western governments are caught on the horns of a dilemma over Egypt. Their silence on the military putsch against elected president Mohammed Morsi makes their insistence on democracy appear dishonest, but if they condemn Morsi's removal on July 3 too strongly, and refuse to cooperate with the new interim government, they will be relinquishing whatever influence they still have in Cairo.

According to Günter Meyer, director of the Center for Research into the Arab World at the University of Mainz, the West is desperate to maintain some kind of influence over Egypt, which has played a key role in US and European Middle East strategy for decades. Moreover, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly a bad thing for either the US or the German government, Mayer told DW, even though it conflicts with the West's claim of upholding democratic values: "Whichever way you want to turn it, it's clear that this is a military putsch."

Anti-Mursi protesters chant slogans during a mass protest to support the army in Tahrir square in Cairo, July 26, 2013. Many of those Egyptians opposed to ousted President Mohamed Mursi say their admiration for the army has never wavered, and that any anger was always directed at the generals in charge. In the turbulent world of Egyptian politics since Hosni Mubarak, a former air force marshal, was toppled, the military is seen as an institution that offers stability. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Thousands of people turned out in Cairo to support the military coup in JulyImage: Reuters

Democracy no priority under Mubarak

"We haven't just been stuck in this dilemma since Morsi's removal," says Christian Achrainer, Egypt expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). Even during the long reign of dictator Hosni Mubarak, which ended in 2011, the West valued stability above all else. The US and the EU were interested mainly in the security of their energy supply, the fight against terrorism, and the continuation of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Calls for democracy and respect for human rights were kept in the background.

After the 2011 revolution, politicians and diplomats were forced into balancing strategic interests and rhetoric. Right now, hardly anyone in the West wants Morsi to be returned to office. And yet the call for power to be handed to a new elected government is at the top of the list of demands. The priority for governments in Europe and the US is that there is no further escalation of violence.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called on the Egyptian authorities to "allow peaceful demonstrations and do everything to prevent further escalation," while the EU called for the release of all political prisoners, including Morsi. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, currently in Egypt, wants to move both the interim government and the Muslim Brotherhood, which supports Morsi, to dialogue. US Secretary of State John Kerry, for his part, also called for an end to the bloodshed. Last weekend alone, at least 80 people were killed in violent clashes on the streets.

No pressure on Cairo

Beyond the calls for calm, dialogue, and the return to democracy, the question remains: what leverage does the West have? The US transfers $1.5 billion (1.1 billion euros) to the Egyptian military every year. According to US law, this aid cannot be given to a government that has come to power through a coup.

According to Meyer, the Egyptian military knows only too well that Washington will not stop the payments: the strategic cooperation with the Egyptian army is simply too important to the US. The US government has put its national interests first and refused to describe the removal of Morsi as a coup. "This law has not shown itself to be a real weapon in any attempt to reverse the military coup or to apply pressure," says Meyer.

The EU, for its part, barely has any leverage to influence developments in Cairo. Brussels can attach its aid and development programs to certain conditions, but Achrainer thinks that will have little impact. For one thing, the crisis-ridden EU lacks the financial means to make offers that could move the powerbrokers in Cairo to change course. For another thing, it is difficult for EU member states to find common ground for such offers. Achrainer thinks that easier access for Egyptian agricultural produce would be something that would interest the leadership in Cairo. But "while the Scandinavian countries may be ready to open the market in agricultural areas, the southern European states would be against it."

A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi carries a Mursi poster during a protest at the Rabaa Adawiya square, where Mursi supporters are camping, in Cairo July 27, 2013. At least 70 people died on Saturday after security forces attacked supporters of deposed President Mohamed Mursi in Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said, adding the toll could be much higher. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
At the same time, thousands of Morsi's supporters were outraged by his overthrowImage: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

No one to talk to

It's not only leverage that's lacking. Achrainer says that there are few negotiating partners in Egypt willing to talk about democracy. The most important players in the country's escalating power struggle are the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. "Neither of them are players that you would really call pro-democratic," says Achrainer. "At the moment, we don't have any real partners to support." On top of that, he added, a one-sided show of support for this or that camp would create widespread outrage in the divided country.

Achrainer believes that the best course of action for the West at the moment is restraint. There is little to be gained from any kind of dogmatic demand. On top of this, contacts will have to be re-built with several political groups. "In the current crisis, we unfortunately just have to accept that the opportunities for having any influence are very slight," he concludes.