By Elise Labott
The United States is launching a full court press to help dig Egypt out of the crippling political crisis prompted by the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsy, with Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham and Deputy Secretary William Burns on the ground in Cairo.
They all share the same goal. Both Burns and the senators are trying to ease tensions between Morsy’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s military, and create the atmosphere for some sort of negotiation between the two sides.
McCain and Graham arrived at the behest of President Barack Obama to press Egypt’s military for a quick return to civilian rule.
Burns is joining EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the foreign ministers of Germany, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to meet with a number Egyptians.
Burns met with the Brotherhood’s No. 2 official, Khairat el-Shater, in the prison where he is being held.
The message being conveyed by the diplomats and the lawmakers, however, is very different.
McCain repeated his refrain the military’s removal of Morsy constituted a coup. Such a declarative statement carries more weight on the ground, especially when accompanied by a warning that Congress holds the purse strings to $1.3 billion in American aid if the military does facilitate a return to full civilian rule.
Burns, however, has refrained from calling Morsy’s ouster a coup because the Obama administration has determined it is in its best interests not to make a determination on the events in Egypt.
To call Morsy’s ouster a coup would trigger a mandatory suspension of aid and fuel the perception among millions of Egyptians that Washington is sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.
To say no coup occurred would alienate millions of other Egyptians who believe the United States “green-lighted” Morsy’s removal.
State Department Spokesman Jen Psaki said the undefined position has not changed.
“Senator McCain and Senator Graham are certainly entitled to their opinions,” Psaki said. “Just as any member of Congress is.”
The United States and its allies are trying to encourage confidence building measures which could lead to a political process.
For the military, that means releasing Muslim Brotherhood officials and dropping charges against others. For that group, it would require ending the massive pro-Morsy sit-ins being held in two squares in Cairo.
Neither side seems to be budging. Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East policy says the standoff is neither surprising, nor likely to end anytime soon.
“The problem is that the nature of what happened in Egypt put the military and the Brotherhood in existential conflict with each other that makes negotiation almost impossible to produce,” Trager said.
“The military has removed the Brotherhood from power and that means it is unlikely to take any steps to allow them to come back. And the Brotherhood can’t accept what happened because it would have a hard time explaining this to their rank and file,” Trager said.
Trager said a better way forward in Egypt is to focus on a durable transition and political process in which the Muslim Brotherhood can choose to take part or not.
Regardless of whether the United States or the rest of the world calls the events in Egypt a coup for policy reasons, he said the world needs to understand the nature of the conflict to help them figure out how to resolve it.