Mohammed Mursi

Debate rekindled over US policy on Mursi

In trying to cut overseas commitments, critics say Obama failed to push for more democracy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 6:29am

The military overthrow of the democratically elected government in Egypt, for decades America's most important Arab ally, has rekindled a fierce debate about whether the Obama administration's Mideast policy has been too passive and ineffective.

US President Barack Obama said that US allegiance was to "democratic principles" after Egypt's military ousted President Mohammed Mursi on Wednesday. But critics say the White House made only halfhearted attempts to steer Mursi's increasingly authoritarian government towards democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.

"They've been late, and slow, and not taken these problems seriously," said Michele Dunne, a former State Department official and administration adviser on Egypt, who now heads the nonpartisan Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East.

Obama repeatedly failed "to use leverage to ensure that Egyptian authorities adhere to democratic principles," said the Project on Middle East Democracy, an advocacy group in Washington.

The critics, who include Democratic foreign policy stalwarts as well as Republicans, say the upheaval in Egypt, on top of the administration's inability to stem the civil war in Syria or convince Iran to curb its nuclear programme, adds a blot to Obama's foreign policy record.

They blame, in part, Obama's desire to reduce America's overseas commitments after a decade of war, and an apparent effort to pull back from a leadership position in favour of a more supporting role in the Middle East.

Administration officials say in their defence that Washington has limited influence in Egypt's domestic affairs and that visible efforts to apply US pressure can backfire. They say they have dealt with key political players but have often kept their diplomacy quiet to avoid inflaming Egypt's polarized political environment.

Mursi co-operated with Obama in working out a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in November, and White House aides hoped for a relationship with Cairo that could be a model for other Islamist countries.

Critics say the White House was unwilling to push back when Egypt's military abused human rights, including ordering military trials for 10,000 civilians accused in connection with the 2011 protests.