The US has sent a high-level envoy for direct talks with the military-installed government in Egypt, the latest sign of the Obama administration’s willingness to work with the interim leadership that removed a democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi. At the same time, the US embassy reopened after two weeks of protests and riots:
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo reopened Monday as a senior Washington official was due to hold talks with the nation’s military-supported leaders.
The embassy was closed to the public for two weeks amid widespread unrest and mass protests in Tahrir Square, a symbolic heart of dissent that is very close to the embassy. In recent weeks, the square was a primary rally point for opponents of now-deposed president Mohammed Morsi.
But street action in the embassy vicinity dwindled before Monday as Egypt continued on a turbulent transition, and as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns prepared to hold meetings with Egypt’s interim government officials and civil society and business leaders.
Burns, who began a two-day visit to Egypt on Sunday, will “underscore U.S. support for the Egyptian people, an end to all violence, and a transition leading to an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government,” the State Department said in a statement.
The choice of Burns is interesting. He’s a career diplomat, a rare example of upward mobility into the ranks of political appointments, only the second career diplomat to ever reach that rank at State. Almost 20 years ago, Time Magazine picked him as one of the future leaders to watch, but he’s kept under the radar by staying focused on diplomacy.
The dispatch of such a senior-ranking official sends a big message, although it’s not the one that the White House would like to highlight. This is realpolitik of the kind that Obama criticized as a Senator and a presidential candidate, and which might have done more good in the spring of 2011 than now. Rather than stand on a principle of democracy that arguably didn’t much exist in Egypt anyway, the US will work with the situation at hand and look toward the long term. Had we done that in 2011 and put our efforts into encouraging a slow transition to a pluralistic constitution first and elections afterward, Egypt might have saved itself a lot of violence and disappointment, and we might be further on the road to actual democracy in Egypt than today.
Burns has a significant task in front of him, as CNN explains in this update from earlier today. The government in Cairo wants to bring in the Muslim Brotherhood while arresting its leaders. The Brotherhood’s Islamist rivals, al-Nour, might be convinced to come along, but the military coup doesn’t exactly build confidence in the safety of the political environment, Steven Simon explains:
Now that the embassy has reopened, the White House may need to consider replacing Anne Patterson as US Ambassador. She has become deeply unpopular among the masses, as evidenced by the signage at the protests that toppled Morsi. The mission that Burns is handling now would normally have gone to Patterson, and Burns’ appearance sends a message about Patterson that won’t help her credibility in the future. In fact, as Reuters notes, Burns himself will see evidence of the problem:
Demonstrators fasting for the holy month of Ramadan rested in the shadows of tents reading Korans. Army helicopters had flown above overnight, dropping flyers exhorting the crowd to renounce violence and end their sit-in.
Abdel Khalid Abu Zeinia, a 50-year-old accountant camped at the square for 11 days in support of Mursi, said of Burns’s visit: “America works against the Egyptian people’s interests. America’s only concern is its interests, and Israel’s. America offers only words, not practical support to democracy.”
If Burns is driven through downtown a few miles away, where Mursi’s foes mostly gather, he will see a giant banner with a portrait of U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson and the message “Go home, witch!”
The US’ problems in Egypt may have little to do with Patterson herself, but her career isn’t the most pressing interest for the White House now. If the Obama administration wants to work with the interim government to shape events, it has to start repairing the damage with the Egyptian populace first. That’s why Burns is in Cairo, and why Patterson needs to leave soon.