I just came back from a press conference by a delegation from the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham. It was interesting because of the context: the furore over Morsi's 2010 comments about Jews, the economic crisis Egypt is facing, the recent debacle over the constitution and the future of Egypt's fledging democracy. My basic takeaway from the press conference is this. The main concerns expressed by the senators are:
- Security and Sinai
- Egypt's relationship with Israel
- Amending the recently approved constitution
- Signing a deal with the IMF
The background to this in the US is a pending $489m aid package (update: reports differ, others are saying $189m as part of a $450m total but I swear I heard $489m), in the form of direct budget support, the Obama adminsitration would like to fast-track and more generally acute concern about the state of the Egyptian economy and a desire to see an IMF deal that would unblock US and other aid but also commit Egypt to eonomic reforms. Perhaps the clearest indication of this was when Senator Graham said:
The Egyptian economy is going to collapse if something is not done quickly. ... It's difficult for US taxpayers to invest in this country if the IMF does not approval a loan [to Egypt].
American politicians, especially compared to the Obama administration, are pretty tone-deaf to Egyptian sensibilities. One shuddered when Graham told the Egyptian journalists present "you're going to have to showcase your best behavior" to get US support.
What the senators want seems pretty clear. Aside from an IMF agreement and all it entails, they want stronger security operations in Sinai — not jut to control the terrorism issue there but also end weapons smuggling to Gaza. They also want — and they want pretty far in saying this short of spelling it out — President Morsi to make amends, publicly, for his remarks on Jews being "the descendants of apes and pigs." They also made it pretty clear they'd like to see amendments to the constitution to ensure greater respect for human rights, empowerment of women, protection of minorities and a more clearly defined (or delimited) role for religion. And similar stuff in the electoral law being currently finalized. At least you can't say they are not addressing issues of democratic governance and human rights.
All of these things were mentioned, but there was a tense moment when Sara al-Deeb of the AP (a fantastic and courageous journalist) reminded McCain of his November 25 statement that aid to Egypt should be withheld in light of Morsi's November 22 auto-coup. McCain denied having said this and reiterated the Senate Foreign Relations Committee full support for emergency aid to Egypt and then moved quickly to another question despite Sara's call for clarifications. Here's McCain on November 25 on Fox News with Chris Wallace (and incidentally I think he was right in expecting a stronger reaction from the Obama administration):
WALLACE: Let's start with Egypt where President Morsi, late this last week, basically granted himself almost unchecked powers and sent thousands of protesters packed into the streets, the people who have been helping to topple Mubarak, now back in the streets, against the many they are calling the new Egyptian pharaoh.
What are the chances, Senator, that are we headed for a new Islamist coup and new Islamist state in Egypt?
MCCAIN: I think it could be headed that way. You also could be headed back into a military takeover if things went in the wrong direction. You could also see a scenario where there is continued chaos.
I'll never forget, Chris, after I was in Egypt, I met with the young people who made the revolution in the square, and, a young woman said, Senator McCain, it's not the first election we worry about, it's the second. That's what we have to worry about, a repeat of the Iranian experience in the 1970s.
So, look -- but, what should the United States of America do? They should be saying this is unacceptable. We thank Mr. Morsi for his efforts in brokering a cease-fire, which is, by the way, incredibly fragile but is not what is acceptable. This is not what the United States and American taxpayers expect and our dollars will be directly related to the progress towards democracy, which you promised the people of Egypt, when your party and you were elected president.
In any case, whether or not he admits it, his position has changed, yet he is also clearly demanding action from the Egyptians. It's probable there was a request from Morsi to make some kind of apology or statement for his remarks on Jews. The senators also made it clear they would like to see better Egypt-Israel relations, although the details are unclear — for instance did they ask for Morsi to engage directly with the Israelis?
Of course what senators ask for is one thing and what the Obama adminstration wants or can settle for is another. Talk of conditionality was rejected by these senators, but the House may feel differently. And the administration is mostly concerned about getting this aid through and the IMF signed so that the Egyptian economy can be saved. My gut feeling is that this is one of these familiar situations in the last 40 years of US-Egypt relations where America tries to hold Egypt aid to ransom to get a change in behavior and Egypt retaliates by holding the US to ransom with its own stability. We've been here before, I know who blinks first.