President Obama on Egypt: No Coup; No Strategy

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., August 20, 2013 – As chaos and killings return to the streets of Egypt, the aftermath of the Arab Spring has lost its political romance. Correspondingly, our Nation’s lack of a definitive foreign policy, particularly with respect to the Middle East, now stands front and center on the world stage. It’s time to explore what can be done to correct that.

President Obama has been consistent in his approach: respond rather than lead; and promote confusion rather than clarity. This may seem to be harsh criticism, but let’s examine the record.

The Mubarak Legacy

As had past Administrations (dating back to the Reagan years), President Obama’s Administration supported Egyptian President Mubarak’s regime which, for 37 years, had functioned more as a dictatorship than a democracy.

Mubarak assumed the Presidency in 1981 after the assignation of Anwar Sadat. While he was “re-elected” in 1987, 1993, and 1999, it was accomplished through referendums in which no one was allowed to run against him. Then, when the Egyptian Constitution was amended in 2005, Mubarak “won” a heavily tainted election, after which his opponent was arrested and imprisoned (ostensibly for forgery).

The United States tolerated this political masquerade because Mubarak remained loyal to its interests.

  • He opposed Islamic fundamentalism and favored a diplomatic relationship with Israel, which created some stability in the Middle East;
  • His government controlled the Suez Canal and allowed it to remain open to U.S. commerce;
  • The majority of the monetary assistance the United States rendered to Egypt was in the form of military aid, which inured to the benefit of America’s military-industrial complex;
  • Egypt provided ongoing over-flight rights to the United States;
  • It permitted troop pre-positioning at Cairo West Airport; and
  • It provided intelligence with respect to Al-Qaeda operations, etc.

Then, when the Arab Spring began to gather momentum, the Obama Administration reversed course. Once it became apparent that Mubarak would fall from power, President Obama called for him to step down.

Had the interests that made our country turn a blind eye toward Mubarak’s autocratic rule gone away? No. Did President Obama have a different plan to “provide for the common Defence (sic) and the general Welfare of the United States,” which Article I, Section 8 prescribes for one of the Executive Branch’s counterparts (i.e., the Legislative Branch)? Apparently not.

On May 19, 2011, President Obama delivered a speech at the U.S. State Department in which he praised Hillary Clinton’s work in the Middle East and provided a vague and sometimes conflicting overview of our Nation’s position with regard to Egypt.

A few pages into his speech, the President said, “The status quo is not sustainable.” Shortly thereafter, he stated, “…after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” Those phrases suggest that change is inevitable and that the President may have a plan for the region (which is neither his responsibility nor within his authority).

The President then softened his position by saying, “…we must proceed with a sense of humility. It is not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo—it was the people themselves who launched these movements and must determine their outcome. Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests do not align perfectly with our long-term vision of the region (emphasis added). But we can—and will—speak out for a set of core principles—principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months.”

While he acknowledged that “not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy,” he then set forth core principles that sounded remarkably like those of our Nation. The President continued:

“The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.

“We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders…

“And finally, we support political and economic reform…that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.”

Then, proceeding with perhaps less humility than he earlier suggested, the President stated:

“Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest. Today, I am making it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions (emphasis added), and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools at our disposal.

“Let me be specific. First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy.”

Pages later, he concluded: “…repression will fail, that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable (sic) rights. It will not be easy. There is no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope. But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves. Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.”

While it was a nice speech, can we draw a factual conclusion with respect to the position of the United States with respect to the aftermath of the Arab Spring? Will we support Egypt’s sovereign right to pursue a form of government that doesn’t reflect the core principles described by the President? Will we continue to provide economic and military assistance to Egypt during and after any transition?

It would seem that those questions, and many others, were left unanswered except for the issue of economic aid. We promised to throw money at the problem.

The President called upon the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund “to present a plan… (that would) stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt… (to) help them recover from the disruption of their democratic upheaval and support the governments that will be elected later this year.”

Second, he stated that “we do not want a democratic Egypt to be saddled by the debts of its past. So, we will relieve a democratic Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt… (and) we will help Egypt regain access to markets by guaranteeing $1 billion in borrowing that is needed to finance infrastructure and job creation.”

Then, the President went on to discuss his intention of “working with Congress to create Enterprise Funds to invest in Tunisia and Egypt… launch(ing) a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa.”

It’s amazing how often taxpayer money can serve in the place of a well-defined strategy.

Enter the Muslim Brotherhood

The Obama Administration initially dismissed any concerns related to an Egypt governed by the Muslim Brotherhood arguing that this was not one of the militant segments of the Muslim Brotherhood and it represented too small of a percentage of the Egyptian population to win election. However, once the latter issue was overcome and Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected President, he and his government were extended our Nation’s customary diplomatic courtesies.

President Obama engaged with President Morsi by phone on a number of occasions and invited him to the White House. Of course, there were a few indications that Morsi’s government might not be on board with President Obama’s “core principles.”

Early in his administration, Morsi briefly granted himself unlimited powers to “protect” the people of Egypt. Then, he asserted that the United States lacked evidence to support a finding that planes flown by members of Al-Qaeda caused the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Perhaps that should have “raised a few flags.”

When Morsi’s past comments surfaced in which he called Jews and Zionists “bloodsuckers” and “the descendants of apes and pigs,” Press Secretary Jay Carney initially condemned Morsi and called his comments “deeply offensive” before politically retreating by saying that Morsi “has demonstrated in word and deed his commitment to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel…He obviously worked with us to resolve…a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict last year. So, this is about action; it’s about deeds.” Really?

Then, Magdi Ahmad Hussein, chairman of the Islamic Labor Party, had his open-mike moment when he said, “I’m very fond of battles. With the enemies, of course – with America and Israel, but this battle must be waged with maximum judiciousness and calm. Even though this is a secret meeting, we must all take an oath not to leak anything to the media” before being informed that the meeting was being televised.

Yet, we continued to deliver an order for 200 Abrams tanks and 20 F-16s to the unstable government and continued to infuse it with taxpayer dollars. Clearly, the “core principles” the President had mentioned had given way to business as usual.

Riots in the Streets

Apparently, the Arab Spring really was about moving toward a more democratic society as opposed to replacing one dictatorship with another. Disgruntled Egyptians began once again to protest in the streets.

They had endured Morsi’s noticeably ineffective leadership. He would announce new laws only to retract them shortly thereafter. At one point, he tried to correct the downward spiral of the Egyptian economy by imposing a massive tax increase before retracting it shortly thereafter (via his Facebook page).

Under Morsi’s command, Egypt suffered rampant unemployment and inflation, gasoline and utility shortages became a chronic condition, and even its supply of potable water was threatened. Coptic Christians began to suffer persecution, opponents were beaten and jailed, and women suffered organized mass sexual assaults. As a result, tourists no longer considered Egypt to be a viable vacation destination, which further unraveled its already weakened economy.

In June 2012, Morsi attended a conference on the Syrian crisis in which radical clerics referred to Shiites as “infidels.” A few days later, a mob lynched four Egyptian Shiite men in Giza lending even greater concern to sectarian tensions.

Around this time, an opposition group started campaigning for early elections and called for mass demonstrations on June 30. When those demonstrations came, they were noticeably larger than those which led to the deposing of Mubarak. Violence broke out, people were killed, and more women were openly raped.

Then, the Egyptian army issued an ultimatum to Morsi. He was given 48 hours to resolve the crisis or be deposed.

When a Coup is not a Coup

During the ensuing 48-hour period, the Obama Administration appears to have been working to preserve the Morsi government. Nuanced statements were made by a few spokespersons of the Administration who denied that the President ever urged Morsi to call for early elections to quell the insurrection. Yet, the President himself said that he pressed Morsi to be “responsive” to the demands of the protesters, who were calling for early elections.

Other senior officials said that our Ambassador to Egypt and other State Department officials did call upon Morsi to agree to early elections. If this is true, it is unlikely that it wasn’t at the direction of the President.

The Ambassador and other State Department officials are also said to have warned the Egyptian military that the $1.3 billion in annual military aid the United States provides might also be at risk if the military were to depose Morsi. If this is true, the Administration completely changed its position shortly thereafter.

When the 48-hour period expired and the military arrested Morsi, President Obama said that he was “deeply concerned” by the move. He urged the military “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsi and his supporters.”

Had the military followed this request, the situation in Egypt may have quickly subsided. However, the military apparently saw no reason to comply with it.

Perhaps that was because the Obama Administration immediately began going to embarrassing lengths to deny that the military overthrow of Morsi was a coup. This sent a signal that any threat associated with withholding the $1.3 billion in military aid was not real. That is because a rule of law would have come into play.

Section 7008 of the FY2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 112-74) prohibits “any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree or … in which the military plays a decisive role.” Even if the Egyptian military is deemed not to have orchestrated a coup, it is difficult to suggest that it didn’t at least play a “decisive role” in the ouster of Morsi’s government. However, that is the Obama Administration’s position.

Almost immediately, some members of Congress began calling for the Obama Administration to follow the Rule of Law while others argued against it. No one seemed to deny that the Rule of Law existed. It was just an argument over whether it would be in our Nation’s best interests to pretend it wasn’t there.

The Rule of Law clearly isn’t what it used to be.

Almost comically, many of the members of Congress flipped their positions just as the Administration had done. It’s as if no one had read further where the Act states that “assistance may be resumed to such government if the President determines and certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office.” In other words, military aid, even if revoked, could be reinstated at any time.

However, when you don’t have a discernible strategy in place, short-term thinking inevitably prevails.


Since the “non-coup” occurred, the military has remained in charge. It suspended Egypt’s constitution and began arresting members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood responded by fighting back. The violence has increased, hundreds have died, and thousands have been wounded.

Egypt’s economy continues to decline, resources are dwindling, and the United States’ position is still unclear.

On August 15, 2013, the President took time from his vacation to deliver several remarks about what had transpired in Egypt. On the one hand, he seemed to recognize what drove the overthrow: “While Mohammed Morsi was elected president in a democratic election, his government was not inclusive and did not respect the views of all Egyptians. We know that many Egyptians, millions of Egyptians, perhaps even a majority of Egyptians were calling for a change in course. ”

On the other, he stated, “The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest. We oppose the pursuit of martial law, which denies those rights to citizens under the principle that security trumps individual freedom or that might makes right.”

So, what decisive action did the President take to express how strongly the United States condemns the military’s non-coup? He announced, “As a result, this morning we notified the Egyptian government that we are canceling our biannual joint military exercise, which was scheduled for next month.”

Try to ignore the fact that we also canceled the last scheduled exercise of this kind because of the Arab Spring. It’s become somewhat of a tradition.

Mission Impossible

Since we clearly do not have a strategy for Egypt (much less a strategy for the Middle East or an overarching foreign policy), your job, should you choose to accept it, is to craft such a strategy as if you were the President of the United States.

It won’t be easy. Our Nation’s failure to have a strategy in place has already eroded many of your options, and anti-American sentiment is running high.

Keep in mind that there are significant advantages to maintaining a relationship with Egypt unless it falls into the hands of an unfavorable government. For example:

  • It is a comparatively huge neighbor of Israel and Jordan, our two closest allies in the region;
  • It controls the Suez Canal, which is of great importance to our country since we also lack a coherent energy policy and remain dependent upon foreign oil; and
  • It currently provides us with serious military advantages in the region by serving as a pre-positioning hub with over-flight rights.

What other positive aspects can you name?

Then, what would you recommend as the United States’ course of action?

Consider your recommendations carefully.

  • How do they impact stability in the region?
  • How do they potentially impact our allies?
  • How do they forestall other major powers from filling the void that would be left if the United States withdrew as an ally of Egypt?
  • Do they comply with the requirements of The Camp David Accord?

Remember: for the purposes of this exercise, you are the President of the United States. While you may be inclined to blame your predecessor, you are still constrained by the situation you have inherited. So, share your ideas and insights in the Comment Section that follows this article. Merely expressing your favor or disfavor with our current approach will not get the job done.


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.

This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities section of The Washington Times.