Disarray is the order of the day — both in Egypt and in the Obama administration.
Interim President Adly Mansour appointed a new prime minister and vice president Tuesday as Egypt braced for a potential backlash a day after security forces gunned down more than 50 supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
In a recorded statement broadcast on Egyptian television Tuesday, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, chief of Egypt’s armed forces, told the nation that the new president’s earlier constitutional declaration and road map for elections and a new charter provided “more than enough assurance” that the country was moving in the right direction.
The announcement was destined to displease many groups in Egypt who see the military government as illegitimate. And it certainly did, as the New York Times reported, with a range of players in Egypt calling the transition plan “muddled, authoritarian and rushed.”
Former CIA case officer Reuel Marc Gerecht e-mails me: “It’s likely an intractable situation: the new government will be seen by a large slice of the population as illegitimate. The military and the Egyptian liberals, who were the two driving forces behind the coup, now own Egypt’s problems.”
However, there were some positive developments there, says Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It’s positive in the sense that the interim government is taking shape, and that there is general consensus among the anti-Islamists that the choices are good ones. But the environment in Egypt is still divisive.” He cautions, “Tensions between the Islamists and the anti-Morsi/Tamarod movement are running high. This story is far from written.”
The most promising aspect of the announcement may be that Mansour named the former finance minister Hazem el-Beblawi as the new prime minister. A former U.S. official wryly observes, “If any country ever needed an economist as prime minister, this is it.” Indeed, Egypt is mired in debt and rife with corruption, a situation that makes additional help and investment problematic. So far it appears the new government is serious about tackling the out-of-control government subsidies and other overdue reforms. The best news of the day may have been the agreement from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to pony up a few billion dollars to help Egypt keep its economy afloat. (Mohammed Morsi’s exit certainly pleased the Sunni Arab states.)
If President Obama has a coherent policy to deal with all this, it is hidden from view. At the White House he busies himself with other matters (a new “management agenda“), and plans for a campaign around the country to support immigration reform (is he trying to kill it?). The Hill reports on the dismay over the “rudderless” White House emanating from both sides of the aisle. Jay Carney lamely tried to explain the president’s choice of priorities:
The White House on Monday defended the importance of Obama’s announcement on his “vision for smarter government during his second term.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the announcement would get a lot of attention if it were not for the Egyptian army’s ouster of that country’s president.
“But in an ideal world, maybe a less — a world crowded with, you know, news like what’s happened in Egypt or the like — this would get the kind of attention that I think it deserves,” Carney said.
“We’ve seen a lot of positive outcomes already,” he said of the database program. “We don’t expect that you all would be writing about them every day, but they matter.”
But what about the world in which we do live? Doesn’t the president have things to say about the most significant Middle East crisis (other than Syria, which he also doesn’t talk about)?
At the State Department press briefing, the president’s political appointee found it difficult to say anything substantive, as this exchange highlights:
QUESTION: Where do we stand today? Is the situation – there’s been a prime minister appointed. What’s your reaction to that? And how goes the coup review?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t have any updates on the second question you asked. The Administration – we’re continuing to discuss and we’re continuing to take the time necessary to review what’s taken place and monitor efforts by Egyptian authorities to forge an inclusive and democratic process forward. As we do that review, as I mentioned yesterday, we will, of course, take into account the requirements under the law consistent with our policy objectives.
And on the first question you asked, we’ve, of course, seen the announcement coming out of Egypt. As we have conveyed to all of Egypt’s leaders, we want to see an inclusive government that addresses Egypt’s many political, economic, and social challenges and builds – as well as building a greater consensus. This is part of the transition. They also announced, of course, additional steps regarding a constitution and elections, as I know you’ve seen.
QUESTION: I’ve got two more things really briefly. The first is: Yesterday you and the White House, and I think maybe also the Pentagon, all called on the Egyptian military to show – exercise maximum restraint.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Do you think that they have done so thus far since making the call? Are you pleased with the action of the – the actions of the Egyptian – sorry, I almost said Israeli – of the Egyptian military?
MS. PSAKI: That’s another important topic. We are not going to make a day-by-day analysis or evaluation.
QUESTION: Well, have you seen anything to suggest that they are not – since the call for maximum restraint, that they are not exercising maximum restraint?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, obviously we’ve expressed through the course of this where we’ve had concerns, including some actions by the military, and we’ll continue to do that. Events are ongoing on the ground, so I don’t have any updates as of the last couple of hours. But we’ll continue to monitor, and as needed, we’ll speak out when needed.
One has the creeping sense Psaki is not merely being discreet but that there is no policy there. (She is not nearly as adept as professional State Department spokespeople who master the art of saying nothing — at great length.)
All of this should come as no surprise. The administration has never shown leadership in the Middle East or devised a coherent approach to dealing with the Arab Spring. Its only mantra seems to be to side with whomever is in power. The secretary of state, in addition to tending to his sick wife (who thankfully appears better, according to reports), is enmeshed in the entirely useless task of trying to restart the “peace process.” He should start a peace process where it is needed, Egypt.
Lower-level positions go unfilled at State, although it’s not clear the White House pays any attention to Foggy Bottom. A former State Department official critical of the administration says he often asks Democrats who is in charge. “The first answer is they have no idea,” he says. “And the second is that they’ve never seen the Cabinet agencies so uninvolved.” In short, outside the walls of the White House no one is contributing meaningfully to foreign policy or to Egypt specifically.
At the National Security Council, Susan Rice (who couldn’t manage to relate a straight story on Benghazi, let alone formulate policy for Libya) and has no experience or competencies we’ve seen for coping with a disaster as significant as Egypt. Who else is there – Valerie Jarrett? Some low-level NSC staffer?
In short, Egypt has huge problems and the United States has neither the personnel nor the policy heft to help navigate through a dangerous period in the Middle East. No wonder American influence is at a low ebb in the region.