US & Canada

President Obama's post-revolution dilemma in Egypt

Egyptians protest outside US embassy in Cairo on 14 July 2012 as Secretary of State Hiilary Clinton visits the country

The scenes in Egypt are eerily reminiscent of the revolution that deposed Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

From the throngs of people on the streets of Cairo demanding the ouster of a leader to the Egyptian military carefully manoeuvring to stay on the side of the people, a defiant Egyptian president saying he rejects domestic or international dictats and will not step down and an American president urging him to listen to his people.

And for Washington the dilemma is the same again: stability or the will of the people?

With one key difference - unlike Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi was chosen by the people, in June 2012, in an election that was considered free and fair, albeit close.

Another difference are the posters held up by the protesters of President Barack Obama and of the American ambassador defaced with an X.

Although Mr Morsi's rule has turned increasingly authoritarian, the US has maintained that it respects the results of the 2012 election, and by doing so it has attracted the ire of the other half of Egypt which did not vote for the Islamist president.

Slow policy shift

In the face of the huge protests, Washington's position has been shifting slowly over the last few days.

"The Egyptian street is dictating US policy," said a former Egyptian diplomat.

It was true in 2011 as well, when Mr Obama upped or decreased the pressure on Mr Mubarak in response to how the crowds reacted to Mr Mubarak's speeches and offers of dialogue; though from Cairo at the time, it first looked liked the US was hedging its bets.

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Media captionPresident Obama urged both Mubarak and Mr Morsi to listen to their people during times of unrest

Mr Obama spoke to Mr Mubarak several times urging him to listen to his people and warning of the instability that could ensue if he did not.

Mr Mubarak rejected the American president's calls and the army eventually intervened quietly to push him out and usher in a transition, overseen by the military, which then led to the election of Mr Morsi.

Now, despite deep misgivings about Mr Morsi, Washington is concerned that his intransigence could lead to a military coup and turn the clock back on any progress made in the last two years to re-establish a civilian rule.

On Monday, President Obama telephoned President Morsi and told him that the US was "committed to the democratic process in Egypt and does not support any single party or group", according to a White House statement.

Mr Obama told his Egyptian counterpart that "democracy is about more than elections, it is also about ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard and represented by their government", and he pressed Mr Morsi to show he is taking the concerns of the protesters into consideration.

Failed US cajoling

On Tuesday, before Mr Morsi's speech, an American official said the US did not make specific demands of Mr Morsi but pressed him to take action. The US is loath to look like it is dictating the actions of the president or boxing him in.

"We have not called for anything as specific as early elections. What we have said is that the government must respond to the legitimate concerns of the Egyptian people," said an American official.

"How that happens specifically, is for the Egyptians to determine. But our message (to Mr Morsi) is clear: You must do something," he added.

But Mr Morsi's defiant speech shows that just like his predecessor, he has not been open to American cajoling.

The Muslim Brotherhood's mindset, as expressed by Mr Morsi, is that they would rather go down fighting, and be the victim, rather than agreeing to a process that would usher their departure.

But the administration's approach is also feeding mistrust in Egypt where many in the opposition are convinced that the White House has been actively supporting the Muslim Brotherhood - a wildly counter-intuitive conspiracy theory considering that the US had never engaged the Muslim Brotherhood before the fall of Mubarak.

"In Egypt the US is either on a pedestal, or it's the devil incarnate," said the former Egyptian diplomat. "The US either faces very high expectations or is at the subject of paranoia of a conspiracy that never ends."

The conspiracy was fed by the Obama administration's desire to show that in the new Arab world, it respected the will of the people and the results of elections - even when they brought to power Islamists.

America's 'darlings'

"Washington thought that by accepting the results of the election, it was repenting for past mistakes of supporting authoritarianism in Egypt and undoing years of distrust towards the US," said Amy Hawthorn, who until April worked at the State Department on Middle East issues and is now at the Atlantic Council.

"But the US failed to understand how traumatised many Egyptians were by the prospect of an Islamist president, shocked by the fact he won, and shocked by how quickly it seemed that the US pivoted towards trying to build a workable relationship with him."

When the Bush administration pushed for elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006, it rejected the results because the victors were Islamists. Hamas is also listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organisation.

Image caption The US has made great efforts to build a working relationship with Mr Morsi

But the Bush administration was criticised in the region where people remarked the US only supported democratic elections when they liked the results. Analysts say the Obama administration overcompensated.

'They didn't figure out how to get balance right between working with Morsi and criticising him," said Ms Hawthorne.

The former Egyptian diplomat also said that the Muslim Brotherhood understood Washington's support for the election and the cautious tone it used in its criticism as open support for them until the next election.

In December, Essam al-Haddad, a senior aide to Mr Morsi, held meetings at the White House and President Obama dropped in - it was seen in Egypt as proof that the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi were the new darlings of America.

Now as Egypt continues to search for its identity, and faces uncertain and possibly bloody days, Washington is just as worried about instability and growing Islamist power as it is about a military coup.

So military officials in the US are on the phone to their counterparts in Cairo, just as they were in 2011.

The administration is probably hoping that if the military takes over, it does so in a way that can somehow be explained as an effort to protect democracy. In the case of an outright coup, by law, the US will have to suspend its $1.3bn (£0.86bn) military aid to Egypt.