08/03/2013 01:22 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

John Kerry Egypt Remarks Linger, Despite Modest Effort To Walk Them Back


CAIRO -- Two days after Secretary of State John Kerry made a controversial remark about the Egyptian military "restoring democracy" when it ousted the country's first popularly elected president, the comment has gone largely unchecked by official Washington, and looms large in a country tense from weeks of political wrangling and violence.

The uproar began on Thursday, when Kerry, in the midst of a multi-nation tour across the Middle East and South Asia, said that in the judgment of his aides, the military had acted with a legitimate mandate from the people when it removed from power President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, and later arrested him.

"The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descendance into chaos, into violence," Kerry told a television interviewer on Pakistan's Geo TV. "And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment, so far. To run the country, there's a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy."

The remarks were quickly denounced by the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which faces the ongoing threat of being dismantled by force by the military-backed government. Its anti-military sit-ins in Cairo have twice been the site of deadly clashes with security forces.

"Such rhetoric is very alarming," said Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, in a statement on Friday that also accused the United States of being "complicit in the military coup" against Morsi's government.

Many analysts say that Kerry's remarks do not seem to square with the policy of the Obama administration, which has sought to strike a fragile balance with the Egyptian military -- neither rejecting the overthrow of a democratically elected president, nor endorsing the sometimes-brutal tactics of the new regime.

The administration has sent some notes of caution to the Egyptian military, including dispatching Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to phone the top Egyptian general Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to plead with him to reverse course, according to The New York Times. The administration also halted a planned shipment of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt.

But it has declined to cut off other forms of assistance to Egypt. It also has pointedly refused to refer to the military's recent maneuvers as a "coup," something that would legally require the administration to cut off its aid to the government, even as the military's crackdown on protesters has grown increasingly violent.

Meanwhile, in the days since Kerry spoke, White House and State Department officials have done little to add context to his remarks, or mitigate their implications, aside from a single unnamed official who told the Wall Street Journal simply that Kerry "did not stick to the script" in his Pakistan interview.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokesman for the White House, told The Huffington Post on Saturday that there has been "no change in our position here" regarding Egypt, but did not elaborate. Emails to the State Department went unanswered on Friday, and with no regular press conference since Thursday, there has been little opportunity for reporters to press the administration on the implications of Kerry's remarks.

"Kerry's remarks give an impression that we did back the coup as it was actually happening," says Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. "This is going to be interpreted as the U.S. was complicit in the coup and is complicit in the subsequent crackdown. Unless they find a way to walk it back, this is going to be the lasting impression of how Islamists view the U.S. role here, and that's going to be very dangerous."

Even Kerry's own effort to revisit his comments, in a separate statement that was described by the Associated Press as "backpedaling," did little to dispel the impression that he nevertheless supported the military's takeover of the government. Speaking at an appearance on Friday with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates in London, Kerry said that "all of the parties involved have a responsibility to be inclusive, to work towards a peaceful resolution," of the crisis; he also denounced the use of violence in dispersing protests.

But the new language did not specifically address the question of the legitimacy of the military's power grab, and focused instead on urging the country to focus on moving forward "to a new normal."

The rhetorical disarray may reflect a certain diplomatic paralysis brought on by the complicated and rapidly unfolding situation in Cairo, some experts say.

"The challenge for the U.S. is that simultaneous with trying to persuade the military to avoid things the administration sees as contrary to its interests, the administration is also seeking to 'preserve the relationship,'" said Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a former top State Department official.

"There's an inherent contradiction there. You might think you need to preserve cooperation to maximize your leverage over your interlocutor, but if you always favor preserving cooperation, the other side comes to believe that you will never use that leverage -- at which point the leverage evaporates. That's where the U.S. finds itself now."

Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, said that if only for this reason, it's clear that Kerry's comments didn't reflect administration policy "because it's been administration policy to be ambiguous and not pin anything down" on the Egypt turmoil.

Still, given the damage it could cause, "it is kind of surprising that they haven't done more to rebut the comments," he added. "But how do you walk that back without undermining your secretary?"



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