In February 2011, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak bowed to a popular uprising and relinquished power, President Barack Obama welcomed the change and declared, "Egypt will never be the same."
Two and a half years after the elation of the "Arab Spring," Egypt "looks much as it did under the aging autocrat, only more violently polarized," the Los Angeles Times reports
Mubarak's court-ordered release from prison Thursday in effect capped the end of Egypt's brief experiment with democracy and its return to military rule.
Obama's inability to ease the crisis reflects America's diminished ability to influence political outcomes in the Arab world's most populous nation, according to critics of U.S. policy in the Mideast. While administration officials have expressed outrage over security forces shooting protesters, they were careful not to jeopardize ties to the military, which the White House views as key to regional stability, particularly peace with Israel.
In Egypt, Obama's reluctance to withhold $1.3 billion in annual military aid stems partly from doubt about whether the military-backed interim government will allow elections once the crisis subsides.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that the aid package was "the subject of ongoing conversation" but remained intact. Obama's other actions on Egypt have been symbolic. He canceled a mostly ceremonial joint military exercise that was scheduled for next month and delayed but did not cancel delivery of four F-16 fighter jets.
The risk of a backlash is clear for U.S. policymakers. Egypt could "prohibit U.S. warplanes headed to Afghanistan or other hot spots from passing through its airspace, or slow American warships transiting the Suez Canal en route to the Persian Gulf," according to the Times. "It could also derail U.S. efforts to have Egypt improve surveillance on its borders with Libya and Israel to stop arms smugglers and terrorists, changes that Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, the army chief, has pledged to make."
"There are plenty of costs to cutting off this aid, and it comes just at the time when, finally, after 30-some years, Gen. Sisi comes in and opens up discussions on these issues," said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. "From the American military perspective, this would be a tragedy."
For a few weeks, U.S.-backed diplomatic efforts appeared to help hold off large-scale bloodshed. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Sisi more than a dozen times and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) met the general in Cairo to urge him to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Those efforts fell apart Aug. 7, and a week later Egyptian soldiers burned the Brotherhood's protest camps to the ground.
"The prospect for getting negotiations between the military and the Brotherhood was always very low, and frankly I think the administration wasted some of its influence by even attempting to get those negotiations going," said Eric Trager, an expert on Egyptian politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"It's another reason we shouldn't be punishing the military," Trager said. "We should be trying to work with it, encourage it to push Egypt forward in a more positive direction."
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