Egypt's military-dominated government has delivered a humiliating, public slap in the face to John Kerry, the US secretary of state, by sentencing three al-Jazeera journalists to long prison terms only hours after Kerry personally expressed his deep concern about the case in high-level meetings in Cairo. The snub represents a disastrous beginning to Kerry's already fraught Middle East tour, which took him to Baghdad on Monday for crisis talks about the Islamist extremist uprising.
The verdict, by a court responsive to government wishes, will also be seen as a deliberate, crude signal to President Barack Obama, who criticised Egypt's deteriorating human rights record after the former general, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, seized power in a coup last year. Sisi has since had himself voted president. His elected predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, and thousands of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters remain in jail while hundreds of others have been killed.
In what US officials said were "candid" talks with Sisi, Kerry "emphasised our strong support for upholding the universal rights and freedoms of all Egyptians, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association". He noted a number of promises by Egyptian leaders "are yet to be fulfilled", but added that "the United States remains deeply committed to seeing Egypt succeed".
The hollowness of all this careful diplomatic language was exposed for all to see by the court's verdict, which diplomats and observers said was reached without the complication of supporting evidence. It seems clear now that Kerry was wasting his breath; the sentences were pre-determined, intended as a stark warning to Egyptian and foreign media and as a symbol of the regime's determination to demonstrate its independence of Washington.
This is ironic given that, before the talks, the US had made available most of the $575m (£328m) in military aid frozen by Congress after the coup against Morsi. Kerry offered more blandishments in the form of 10 Apache attack helicopters, which he said would be supplied to Egypt "very soon". This is exactly the sort of deadly air power that Iraq's government has pleaded for but has so far been denied by Obama.....
Kerry now faces the unenviable task of persuading Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's stubborn and divisive Shia prime minister, to step down – or at least share power with representatives of the Sunni community – without the carrot of American military assistance to sweeten the deal. Obama has made it crystal clear that he wants no part of a "third Iraq war".
Even if Maliki bows to American demands, there is no certainty his government will survive or get the military backing it needs. Given weekend reports about the chaotic state of Iraq's army, the 300 "military advisers" the US has agreed to send can hardly make much difference, at least in the short term.
Last week's fantasy of a Washington-Iran axis to bring peace to Iraq has been comprehensively exploded by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, who warned at the weekend against the intervention of any foreign country in Iraq's internal affairs. If the US ignores Tehran's viewand sends in its forces, it risks a repeat of the period from 2004 to 2008 when Iran cynically backed insurgents of all religious persuasions against the "Great Satan".
Iran remains Maliki's strongest backer. If Tehran's leaders insist he stay, there is little the weakened Kerry, lacking diplomatic and military ammo, can do. He says he wants Iraq's three main communities – Shia, Sunni and Kurd – to work together to secure the integrity and survival of the country. But at present all three are pulling violently in different directions. The bumbling Kerry is not the man to put this particular Humpty Dumpty together again.
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