U.S. regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey are backing opposite sides in the violent power struggle in Egypt, complicating U.S. diplomacy as the most populous Arab nation is torn by conflict.
In pressing Egypt’s interim government — and the military leaders who hold the real power — for political reconciliation with Islamist protesters, President Barack Obama is finding that U.S. influence is being challenged by financial and political support from Middle East countries pursuing their own stakes in Egypt’s future.
“What we’re seeing in the Middle East is a competition for power and influence among the key states that are wealthier and have more resources” and fewer internal problems than others in the region, said Brian Katulis, a foreign policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy research group.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have pledged billions of dollars in aid to the new Egyptian government. Qatar was a financial backer of ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi’s administration, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced last week’s government crackdown on pro-Mursi protesters as a “massacre.”
“What Qatar and Turkey say is almost a 180-degree opposite of what the Emirates and the Saudis are saying publicly,” Katulis said.
While trying to deal with those differences over Egypt, the U.S. is relying on the same countries for cooperation on other regional challenges, including support for rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian regime and curtailing Iran’s nuclear activities.
The interplay of interests may help explain the Obama administration’s caution in responding to the Egyptian crisis, Katulis said in a phone interview.
“We’ve almost overhedged our bets,” he said. “We’re tying to maintain good relations with all these actors that have often tense relations with each other. I think that explains, in part, the reticence Obama has.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has tried to harness polarization among U.S. allies to advance mediation.
Kerry met in London this month with U.A.E. Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and asked him to press the Egyptian government not to use force against protesters, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to comment. Kerry also called his Qatari counterpart to urge him to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood that backed Mursi to encourage nonviolence and an effort at reconciliation.
Subsequently, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns flew to Cairo to participate in an Egyptian mediation effort along with a European Union envoy and foreign ministers from the U.A.E. and Qatar.
While that effort failed, bringing the Emirati and Qatari ministers together despite their differences “was a diplomatic accomplishment that didn’t get enough attention because of the bigger crisis in Egypt,” said Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington.
“I see this as a one-shot deal that was very impressive, worth trying, didn’t work and would be hard to reconstitute,” she said in a telephone conference call.
There are signs the lines are hardening.
Saudi King Abdullah, in a statement read on Al Arabiya television Aug. 16, expressed support for Egypt’s military-backed interim government against “strife and sedition.”
Similarly, the U.A.E. blamed the “tragic events” in Cairo on radical groups using hate speech, according to the official WAM news agency, citing a statement from the foreign ministry.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, and the U.A.E. watched with concern as Islamic political parties were swept into power after popular uprisings in 2011. The U.A.E., which has the Arab world’s second-largest economy after Saudi Arabia, jailed 69 Islamists last month for allegedly establishing secret cells to seize power.
The U.A.E. has cracked down on Islamist groups, which the government says have been emboldened by popular uprisings that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Most of those detained belong to a domestic Islamist group known as al-Islah.
Egypt has received at least $5 billion in aid from the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia since Mursi’s ouster, as part of a $12 billion pledge from those two countries and Kuwait.
That dwarfs the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt, largely military funding for weapons such as F-16 fighter jets and M1A1 Abrams battle tanks that is in jeopardy after the government’s assault on protesters.
On the other side of the geopolitical equation, Qatar had provided $5 billion to help shore up Egypt’s finances under Mursi and pledged $3 billion more in April. Qatar, slightly smaller in size than Connecticut, ranked first worldwide last year in per-capita gross domestic product adjusted for relative purchasing power, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Qatar is “not playing a particularly positive role” in Egypt, said David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Schenker points to “incredibly incendiary” broadcasting by the Egyptian channel of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network, featuring “Muslim Brotherhood body bags all the time.”
Qatar is a U.S. ally in backing the Syrian opposition — providing arms when the U.S. isn’t doing so — and allows the U.S. to use a major airbase that’s likely to be needed if the U.S. launches military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Turkey, a NATO ally and key supporter for the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition, also lines up with Egypt’s Islamists. The Turkish government, led by the Islamist Justice and Development Party, has criticized Egypt’s military since it toppled Mursi.
Those who staged Mursi’s ouster have committed a “very clear massacre,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Aug. 15, after the bloody crackdown by security forces. Those who remain silent are “collaborators” of murderers, Erdogan said.
Both nations subsequently recalled their ambassadors, and Egypt canceled joint naval exercises with Turkey planned for October. Egypt criticized Erdogan’s comments as interference in Egypt’s internal affairs.
The U.S. is counting on Turkey to continue to work on Syria with the U.S. and Persian Gulf nations, which are taking the lead in sending arms to Syrian rebels for their fight against the regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad.
“Strains in our relationship with Turkey over its position toward Egypt don’t make Syria cooperation any easier,” said Hawthorne, a former State Department official who worked on Egypt and Arab Spring issues. “On the other hand, as long as the U.S. and Turkey have the same basic goals with respect to Syria, I don’t think it would damage that policy.”