Egypt appears to be on the brink of chaos this week but the best advice America’s ambassador has for an embattled religious minority in the world’s most populous country is to stay home. The report about the visit of Ambassador Anne Patterson to Coptic Pope Tawadros II came from an Egyptian paper but is spreading rapidly around the Internet and being cited as an example of the tacit support the United States continues to show for the government of President Mohamed Morsi even as the country starts to fall apart. But with a mass protest scheduled for Sunday—the event Ambassador Patterson wanted Copts to stay away from—the president’s attitude toward the demonstrations that are shaking Morsi’s grip on power is more than a matter of curiosity.
This is, after all, an administration that did a lot to encourage the first round of Arab spring protests in Egypt that took down longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak and ultimately replaced him with a Muslim Brotherhood government that may be far worse than the deposed authoritarian. But with Morsi’s calling on loyal army units to be reinforced and to be prepared for what may be an effort to suppress the protests, the White House has been remarkably quiet about what’s going on in Egypt.
The problem here is that as far as many Egyptians are concerned, they have merely swapped a secular tyrant for a theocratic one and now see that that placing the Brotherhood in power was a terrible mistake. The Brotherhood hasn’t shown much aptitude for government and its actions have given the lie to the promises its leaders made to naïve Western journalists about not wishing to impose their fanatical religious beliefs on the rest of the nation.
There was a moment when Obama could have used the limited leverage that the U.S. has over the situation due to the billions it gives Egypt every year to try and help the military keep the Islamists from taking power. But instead, Obama pressured the army to let the Brotherhood rule. Now, after having been placed under Morsi’s thumb as part of a number of measures undertaken to solidify his party’s grasp on every aspect of Egypt’s government, the Islamists are looking to the army to help keep them in control and the U.S. seems to have nothing more helpful to say about than to tell Christians to stay out of it.
As with the protests that have shaken the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—another Obama favorite—the U.S. has adopted a position of indifferent silence toward pro-democracy protesters in Cairo and other Egyptian sites where demonstrations have spread. This is very different from the outspoken position the administration took in 2010 when the Arab Spring protests spread across the region.
The question Americans ought to be asking about U.S. policy toward Egypt is why it was in the interests of the U.S. to support the Arab Spring in 2010 but not to support those Egyptians who wish to prevent their country from falling irrevocably into the hands of Islamists? The inability of the White House to provide a coherent answer to that query can be directly linked to the decline in U.S. influence in the region and the daunting prospects of even worse to come in the future.