U.S. allies were near a deal for peaceful end to Egypt crisis


Egypt's interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, left, meets with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, center, and European Union envoy Bernardino Leon in Cairo on Aug. 6. ElBaradei resigned this week in protest against a bloody crackdown on protesters by Egypt’s military-backed government. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)
August 16, 2013

Two weeks before the bloody crackdown in Cairo, the Obama administration, working with European and Persian Gulf allies, believed it was close to a deal to have Islamist supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi disband street encampments in return for a pledge of nonviolence from Egypt’s interim authorities.

But the military-backed government rejected the deal and ordered its security forces to break up the protests, a decision that has resulted in hundreds of deaths and street clashes that continued Friday in the capital.

The agreement nearly brokered two weeks ago sought statements of restraint from both sides and an inquiry into competing claims of violence and mistreatment, said Bernardino León, the European Union’s envoy for Egypt. That was supposed to be a prelude to talks between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government.

Former Egyptian vice president Mohamed ElBaradei appeared to back the deal but could not convince Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the head of the military, León said. ElBaradei resigned after violence erupted.

The proposal was the result of weeks of visits and calls to Cairo by an unlikely diplomatic coalition representing supporters and opponents of Morsi and declared neutral parties, led by the United States.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Karen Tumulty join the conversation on the crisis in Egypt and President Obama's leadership style. (The Washington Post)

The diplomatic squeeze play was meant to underline strong international opposition to any violent government action against Morsi’s supporters and to tell the Muslim Brotherhood it had no choice but to disband street encampments.

Together with Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and the foreign ministers of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, León presented a proposal to scale back protests and initiate talks between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government, participants said.

“It was a quite simple package the four of us were supporting,” León said in a interview, but one that would be difficult to resurrect now.

The envoys had hoped to clear the squares without violence and set the stage for the transition to elections that the military had promised when it pushed Morsi from office on July 3, León said.

The failed proposal represented the most intensive U.S. involvement to try to avert bloodshed, and demonstrates the new limits of U.S. influence over both the military and Islamists backing Morsi. Both sides have harshly criticized Washington, and each has accused President Obama of backing its opponent.

For weeks before Wednesday’s government crackdown, Secretary of State John F. Kerry or Burns spoke nearly every day with the foreign ministers of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, whose influence with the opposing sides in Egypt was often stronger than Washington’s.

The two small, rich Gulf nations play outsize roles in regional foreign policy and tend to back different sides in Mideast conflicts. Along with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the two Gulf states are sending more money to Cairo than the United States is, several officials involved in the effort said.

Throughout the six-week crisis, the United States has leaned on the UAE to intercede with the interim government and the Egyptian military, and used Qatar as a go-between with the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar, which has backed Islamist movements and is accused of backing militants in Syria, has emerged as a leading international backer of the Brotherhood.

“It’s natural that we would have interacted with these countries because they are the ones that are playing, that have strong relations, in Egypt,” a senior U.S. official said Friday as renewed street fighting killed at least 60 people, including eight Egyptian police officers.

The U.S. official and others interviewed requested anonymity in order to discuss closed-door diplomacy. None was optimistic that the kind of negotiation they had hoped to foster two weeks ago could resume anytime soon.

Numerous other countries were also pressing Egyptian authorities not to use force to disperse street encampments.

“Clearly nobody had enough clout with the military to say put this off another week, put this off another two weeks,” said F. Gregory Gause III, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Vermont. “But I think that it’s a mistake to judge American influence in Egypt based on our ability to get them to fundamentally change the direction of domestic politics. We’re the most powerful country in the world, but states don’t give up power just because foreign patrons say do it.”

Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled bin Mohammed al-Attiyah and UAE chief diplomat Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan each made repeated visits to Cairo, sometimes overlapping with Burns and León, diplomats said.

Their joint proposal stressed the mutual goal of avoiding a bloody confrontation and left for later the hard questions of what to do with the jailed Morsi and the political participation of his backers in any future election.

The Muslim Brotherhood called Friday for continued daily protests in support of Morsi, while the government enforced a curfew and said it will use deadly force to stop attacks on government institutions.

Diplomatic efforts appeared at a standstill Friday. The European Union contemplated a pullback of aid to the interim government in protest of the deaths of about 700 people this week. Saudi King Abdullah, who frequently speaks for many Arab states, said he stands behind the Egyptian government in its fight against “terrorism and strife.” That suggested backing for the government’s hard line — just the opposite of the message the U.S.-backed proposal had sought to send.

At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power spoke in favor Thursday of efforts to pass a Security Council expression of concern about the prospect of deepening violence.

But U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson gave a gloomy assessment of prospects to negotiate a way out of the crisis, according to two diplomats in the room.

“Eliasson was skeptical about the possibility of a positive evolution of the situation in the short term, given the antagonistic positions of the Egyptian parties,” said one diplomat. “He said that none of the key players in Egypt are open to listening to advice coming from abroad. They are not open to confidence-building, bridge-building missions.”

Michael Hanna, an expert on Egypt at the Century Foundation, said in a telephone interview from Cairo that international diplomats there seemed at a loss.

“There is a sense that Egypt has crossed the line,” Hanna said.

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