President Barack Obama rhetorically washed his hands of Egypt today, announcing, “Americans cannot determine the future of Egypt — that’s a task for the Egyptian people.”
After his statement, the president went golfing on Martha’s Vinyard, where he’s on vacation.
The statement came 49 months after Obama chose Cairo University in Egypt, under then-strongman Hosni Mubarak, as the site of his chief foreign policy initiative.
“I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect,” he declared in June 2009 to an enthusiastic reception from American progressives and establishment media.
The U.S.-Egypt relationship, he announced to an audience that included invited members of the Muslim Brotherhood party, would be “one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive… They overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings.”
Obama later pointedly declined to back Mubarak amid popular protests in early 2011. He then endorsed the elected government of Muslim Brotherhood Islamists after they won parliamentary and presidential votes in 2011 and 2012.
This July, amid massive public protests against the tightening Islamist rule of Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s military removed the brotherhood from power.
The July protests were spurred by the nation’s crashing economy, the brotherhood’s oppression of women and Christians, and violent attacks on pro-democracy protestors.
Obama used his statement today to issue boilerplate calls for peace and reconciliation, but he made only one brief reference to elections.
That’s a change from Wednesday, when his spokesman and his Secretary of State repeatedly urged the military to quickly schedule new elections. “When the interim government took power [in July], we expressed our concern about the need for a prompt transition back to a democratically elected civilian government,” deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said August 14. (RELATED: Obama pushes to give Muslim Brotherhood another chance in elections)
But on Thursday, Obama only made a passing reference to elections.
“Commitments must be kept to pursue transparent reforms of the [Brotherhood-drafted] constitution and democratic elections of a parliament and a president,” Obama said. “We don’t take side with any party or political figure.”
The president criticized the military’s violent removal of brotherhood demonstrators in Cairo, but didn’t declare the military takeover to be an illegitimate coup. In fact, he suggested the military’s takeover might have had majority support. “Perhaps even a majority of Egyptians were calling for a change in course,” he said about the takeover.
He also made sure to criticize the Muslim Brotherhood government, following more than a year of public support and personal pressure on Morsi.
In at least one private phone conversation, Obama had urged Morsi to be more tolerant of secular and Christian opposition to his hardline Islamist policies, which include a new constitution that imposed an apartheid-like inferior legal status on women and Christians.
“We appreciate the complexity of the situation… while Mohamad Morsi was elected president in a democratic election, his government was not inclusive, and did not respect the views of all Egyptians,” Obama said.
He also suggested that the brotherhood’s protests was partly responsible for the violence. “We call on those who are protesting to do so peacefully, and condemn the attacks we’ve seen by protesters, including on churches,” he said.
But the bulk of his statement showed the United States backing away from involvement in the so-called “Arab Spring” that Obama promoted and cheered.
“We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt.,” he said. ‘That’s our interest. But to achieve that, Egyptians are going to have to do the work,” he said.
Efforts to build democracy “are measured not in months or even years, but sometimes in generations,” Obama said.
“America will work with all those in Egypt and around the world who support a future of stability that rests on a foundation of justice and peace and dignity,” he said, carefully not mentioning democracy or elections.
“Thank you very much,” the president concluded, and headed to the golf course.