The State Department has a new defense of Egypt’s military coup: It may have prevented a civil war. It’s an odd argument, considering top officials of the American government were trying to talk Cairo’s generals out of deposing President Mohamed Morsy just before the coup went down. And it’s another sign that the Obama administration’s policy towards Egypt is something less than coherent.
On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Amman he wasn’t going to "rush to judgement" on Morsy’s ouster. "What complicates it, obviously, is that you had an extraordinary situation in Egypt of life and death, of the potential of civil war and enormous violence, and you now have a constitutional process proceeding forward very rapidly," he added. "So we have to measure all of those facts against the law, and that’s exactly what we will do."
The idea that the coup carried out by Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi may have been justified is supported by many liberal Egyptians and some analysts in the U.S., but it was not the message conveyed to Egypt’s military by key officials in the Obama administration, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.
In multiple phone calls to Sisi prior to the ouster of Morsy on July 3, Hagel repeatedly discouraged Sisi from forcing Morsy out, according to The Wall Street Journal . "In the first call, in late June, Mr. Hagel gently cautioned Gen. Sisi against a coup," officials told the newspaper last week. After Sisi warned Morsy of a military intervention on July 1, Hagel doubled down on his demand to Sisi in a second phone call. "Hagel warned him more forcefully about the potential implications of a coup on the U.S.-Egypt relationship, including Washington’s ability to continue to provide military aid," the Journal reported.
Despite these actions, in the days since the coup, the State Department has consistently highlighted justifications for the ouster such as the "millions of peoples" in Egypt "who didn’t think it was a coup," as spokeswoman Jen Psaki pointed out last week, or the 22 million Egyptians who signed a petition demanding Morsy’s ouster, another fact pointed out by Psaki.
The State Department insists "we’re not taking sides," in Egypt’s democratic struggle between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and more secular groups who flooded Tahrir square by the millions, but now that the military has sided with the opposition, Foggy Bottom has the difficult task of positioning itself with the winners — a particularly fraught endeavor given its insistence that Egypt’s future government include the Muslim Brotherhood whose leader remains in custody.
At a Thursday State Department press briefing, Marie Harf emphasized that "we’ve called on the interim government to end arbitrary arrests … including his," referring to Morsy. She also said Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns made a phone call with a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood during his visit this week, though she would not disclose the identity of the official.
A State Department spokesman did not respond to a request about an incoherence in U.S. policy regarding the coup. According to the Journal, Hagel was not getting in front of his skis when he urged Sisi not to depose Morsy. "Hagel isn’t freelancing," the report said. "Before each call, White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice coordinates policy and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Derek Chollet and other advisers make the rounds of the administration and then brief Mr. Hagel, who speaks daily with U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson."
As for Patterson, Harf reiterated her support for the embattled diplomat who’s taking heat from both Islamists and liberals. "Anne Patterson, who is a longtime decorated foreign service officer … has the complete support of the State Department," said Harf.