Egypt’s military-backed government underlined the weakness of U.S. influence by ignoring Washington’s calls for restraint and arresting the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood on Tuesday.
Analysts noted that the Obama administration’s impotence in Egypt contrasts sharply with the rising influence of U.S. allies in the Middle East that are solidly behind the crackdown on Islamist supporters of former President Mohammed Morsi, who was overthrown and arrested by the military July 3.
“If it wasn’t clear before, it is clear now: We have little to no leverage” in Egypt or the broader Middle East, said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a political scientist at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank with historic ties to the U.S. military.
The crackdown in Egypt, which began last week with the clearing of protest camps in Cairo occupied by Mr. Morsi’s supporters, has claimed more than 900 lives, including dozens of police officers, according to official figures. It continued this week with the arrest of hundreds of leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, including the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie.
The arrests, along with the continued detention of Mr. Morsi, constitute “a decapitation strike” against the Brotherhood, a movement that espouses political Islam and the imposition of Muslim religious law or Shariah, according to veteran military intelligence analyst John McCreary.
The State Department, meanwhile, struggled to explain the administration’s position on the annual $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt. If the White House characterizes Mr. Morsi’s ouster as a coup, it would be legally obligated to withhold the money.
“Right now all of our experts are looking at every single piece of aid we give to Egypt and whether a certain legal restriction might be triggered,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
She added that a legal review “determined that we have the legal authority to continue to provide most of our assistance.” The Egyptian military gets $1.3 billion of the aid.
But the legal review at the State Department is separate from a policy review led by the White House, under which the administration is looking again at every aspect of its relationship with Egypt, Ms. Harf added.
“We’ve also made very clear to the Egyptian government that what happens on the ground is going to impact our policy review,” she said. “It’s incumbent upon them to move away from violence and towards an inclusive [political] process.”
Ms. Kaye noted that U.S assistance to Egypt is “dwarfed by the aid from the Gulf States,” such as U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which have pledged nearly $12 billion in aid.
On Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said, “To those who have announced they are cutting their aid to Egypt, or threatening to do that, [we say that] Arab and Muslim nations are rich … and will not hesitate to help Egypt.”
Even Ms. Kaye noted the limits of U.S. influence in the region, where Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations are pursuing “their own national interests and undercutting the message of the United States.”
It was “an illusion” to think that the United States could change their policies, she added.
Brian M. Jenkins, also of the Rand Corp., noted that the United States is not even seen as a “guarantor” of the survival of Arab governments
“Regimes in the Middle East are going to act independently when their own vital interests are at stake,” he said.