The United States is treading warily amid Egypt’s political crisis, uncertain how the struggle between President Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist supporters and the opposition will play out in its key ally.
Top US officials have voiced fears of a return to the authoritarian days of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, but stopped short of an outright condemnation of Morsi’s recent actions denounced by the opposition as a grab for power.
Up to 2,000 people demonstrated Tuesday in front of the presidential palace in Cairo aiming to scuttle a draft constitution being pushed by Morsi and his Islamist backers before Saturday’s second round of a controversial referendum.
The opposition has denounced the document, written largely by Islamists, arguing it weakens human rights protections, particularly for women, and sets the stage for a creeping advance towards Islamic sharia law.
Washington has called on Egyptian authorities to allow demonstrations to go ahead, but urged that they should remain peaceful.
And State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland refused to comment on Sunday’s first round of the referendum, with unofficial tallies showing 57 percent of people in Cairo and nine other regions had backed the draft charter.
“I think we’re not going to opine as a government on the process until the process is completed,” Nuland told journalists.
She acknowledged however that Washington had heard of some voting irregularities and urged the electoral commission to investigate every complaint.
“That will be very, very important for the credibility of the process going forward,” she said.
Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei told Foreign Policy magazine Tuesday that the administration of US President Barack Obama had a responsibility to condemn any abuses.
“Particularly in the US, frankly, what you see is a very muted reaction,” he said. “People here are very disappointed… they want the Americans, and everybody else, to put their money where their mouth is. And that’s not happening.”
The US administration has shown remarkable caution since the start of the political crisis in late November when Morsi issued a decree granting himself wide presidential powers.
Morsi rescinded the decree following global pressure. The US did not join the chorus of protest, but did voice concerns over what it called “legitimate questions” about the constitutional process.
“We don’t want to see any return to the bad old days of the Mubarak era in terms of security practices,” Nuland stressed last week, calling on the military to show restraint during demonstrations.
She also directly called on Morsi “as the first democratically elected leader of Egypt, to lead the effort before, during and after the voting to continue to try to build a national consensus.”
US officials are caught between wanting to support a broad movement for change while insisting the Egyptian people must chart the course of their own democracy, and worrying “the promise of the revolution” could be lost.
But the muted response from Obama’s administration shows it is still calibrating ties with Morsi, after its decades-long cozy relations with Mubarak.
“Through this upheaval, the Obama administration has been oddly restrained,” wrote David Ignatius in the Washington Post earlier this month.
“It’s crazy for Washington to appear to take sides against those who want a liberal, tolerant Egypt and for those who favor sharia. Somehow, that’s where the administration has ended up.”
While officials voice disquiet about which path Morsi is planning to take, they highlight that, so far, he has said he will honor the 1979 peace treaty with Israel — a key cornerstone of regional peace.
The Europeans however are taking a tougher stand.
The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, earlier this month called for ties between the European Union and Egypt to be suspended.
“We can’t give approval to a coup d’etat. The only thing such a regime understands is economic pressure,” he told the German Sunday paper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
German Development Minister Dirk Niebel warned plans to turn some 240 million euros ($310 million) of Egyptian debt into aid may be under review.
“Morsi should ensure there are no doubts that Egypt is on the path to democracy. The Egyptians are right to expect this from him, and we will judge him on that basis as well,” he told Bild daily.
Some $450 million in proposed aid to Cairo is currently blocked in the US Congress, but there has been no hint the United States is rethinking its $1.3 billion in annual military aid.