Egypt Crisis Sidelined at U.N.



UNITED NATIONS—When hundreds were killed in Egypt after interim authorities cleared out antigovernment protest camps in August, the country's political crisis moved front-and-center of the world stage.

U.S. President Barack Obama suspended joint military exercises with Egypt. European foreign ministers rushed back from summer vacations for an emergency meeting. Iran's foreign ministry said Egypt was drifting toward civil war.

Six weeks later, at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, Egypt's crisis has seemed a side issue, a regrettable irritant that needs mentioning but not tackling.

That is partly because of the magnitude of other news here this week, including the highest level U.S.-Iranian diplomacy since the 1979 revolution and a much-prized U.N. Security Council deal ordering Syria to hand over or destroy its chemical weapons by mid-2014.

More fundamentally, as some policy makers acknowledge, Egypt has faded from view because western countries remain torn on events in Cairo, worried that Egypt's interim leaders are veering from a democratic track, but hoping that they can restore stability and then deliver on pledges to proceed to elections.


"What is our interest in Egypt? A stable Egypt," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn in an interview late Friday. Mr. Asselborn said the West has no choice but to deal with the current leadership whatever its unease about the violence and the early July military intervention to oust Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi. Those events have now "happened. I believe Egypt needs a second chance."


On Saturday in his speech to the General Assembly, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy was unapologetic about the authorities' actions, equating the military ouster of Mr. Morsi amid huge protests against the Muslim Brotherhood with the "Arab Spring" events of early 2011 that forced out former strongman Hosni Mubarak.


Mr. Fahmy said the government was "determined to fully implement" a transition back to democracy, including parliamentary and presidential elections by next spring.


He challenged the international community to swing behind the authorities' efforts to restore stability and eliminate what he labeled terrorism and violence in the country. "I trust that the international community, which has for long rejected terrorism, will firmly stand by the Egyptian people in the fight against violence and its advocates, and will not accept any attempt to justify it," he said.


The events in Egypt have not gone unmentioned at the U.N.; Egypt reportedly recalled its ambassador from Tunis after Tunisia's moderate Islamist President Moncef Marzouki used his U.N. speech to urge Egyptian authorities to free Mr. Morsi, who has been detained since his ouster. Turkish President Abdullah Gul slammed the "waves of reaction" against the Arab Spring and said democratic advances in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt would prove "irreversible."


On the sidelines of the U.N. meeting, small pockets of pro-Morsi protesters waved flags and denounced the "treason" of armed forces chief Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in placards. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton discussed the Egyptian situation at a closed-door session with EU foreign ministers on Tuesday.


Baroness Ashton said she would travel to Cairo early next week to push for dialogue, her third trip since Mr. Morsi's ousting. But there was pushback according to one official present. Some ministers were "extremely worried" about the drift of events and concerned Brussels wasn't pressing the interim authorities hard enough. The EU had said in August that after curtailing some military ties, it would consider further steps if the situation didn't improve. While Egypt's state of emergency was extended earlier September, no further steps have yet been taken.


Mr. Fahmy met with a number of senior officials including Baroness Ashton and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. After that meeting on Sunday, a U.S. official said Mr. Kerry pushed his counterpart on the authorities' pledge to advance the transition and on arrests of leading Muslim Brotherhood officials.


Yet the official said Mr. Kerry avoided any detailed discussions with Mr. Fahmy of the administration's thinking about military aid and didn't press Mr. Fahmy to release Mr. Morsi, although that remains the official U.S. stance.


That balance, trying to prod Cairo without pushing too hard, was evident in Mr. Obama's speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday. The U.S. president said Mr. Morsi had proved unwilling or unable to govern in a way that was fully inclusive."


"The interim government that replaced him responded to the desires of millions of Egyptians who believed the revolution had taken a wrong turn, but it, too, has made decisions inconsistent with inclusive democracy," Mr. Obama said.


Mr. Obama said it was in the U.S. interests to maintain a "constructive relationship" with the interim government but warned that just as the U.S. has already curtailed some military assistance, "our support will depend upon Egypt's progress in pursuing a more democratic path."


Ian Lesser, senior director for foreign and security policy at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, said the West's arms-length approach to Egypt is borne of deep divisions over the best approach to take and a certain fatigue of wresting with complex Middle Eastern crises in recent years where western intentions often backfire. "One has an impression I think, in a way quite unprecedented way…of confusion, complexity and ultimately indecisiveness from foreign policy makers," Mr. Lesser said.


The policy choices are "very uncomfortable and very difficult and I think that the politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are just not primed to make…major new policy changes on Egypt at this moment."

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