Alex Witt   |  August 17, 2013

US caught in balancing act between Egyptian forces

Fmr. Asst. Secy. of State P.J. Crowley talks to Alex Witt about the crisis in Egypt and how the United States is reacting to the situation there. He explains the balancing act of the United States between the opposing forces in Egypt. Conditions to the situation in Egypt are hardly conducive to a return to civilian rule, Crowley explains.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> good morning, everyone. welcome to "weekends with alex witt ". let's get to what's happening out there. a developing news from a situation right now in egypt . it is critical. the muslim brotherhood protesters calling for a week of peaceful protests. an estimated 100 people were killed and over 1,000 arrested yesterday. but those numbers expected to rise. nbc news richard engel was on the front line in cairo's ramsey square.

>> protesters are taking cover under this elevated highway . seem to be taking live fire from a police station just up the road.

>> wounded were hoisted onto motorcycles and taken to clinics. some already looked dead.

>> for more i'm joined by p.j. crowley, a fellow at the george washington university institute for tkhreupt seu and global communications. just your reaction to what we're seeing. the violence. look at the pictures that richard engel brought to us. people brought into morgues, declared dead, boom, they're moved out. it's horrific what we are seeing.

>> well, egypt is moving backwards. in many respects, while the players shifted on the field, we're back to where egypt was in january 2011 or even before. obviously the military's reasserting itself, cutting the muslim brotherhood down to sizement it's hard to see whatever emerges from this will be different. but it will hardly be the in exclusive democracy that, for example, the united states has aspired for egypt .

>> so the president breaks a vacation, makes an address from martha's vineyard on thursday. talk about what he said. are we doing the right thing? are we doing enough?

>> i would have called it a coup six weeks ago. in terms of democracy in the middle east has been -- that credibility has been lost. that said, the united states is going to have influence only on the margins. perhaps it can draw boundaries around which the military has to operate. by not calling it a coup, we signal we're going to learn with whatever ultimately emerges in terms of a new government in egypt .

>> p.j., if we were to label this a coup, that would mean we would have to stop funding any sort of military aid , any sort of humanitarian aid support to egypt . is that true?

>> well, it is true. that's why the administration has largely decided they're not going to decide. and barring some sort of horrific --

>> what is that getting us right now? the money that we are supplying to egypt , what is that doing for the united states 's interests there?

>> well, the united states looks at the egyptian military as the most effective institution, probably the only effective institution in egyptian society. it's going to have its influence on whatever emerges. and the united states is going to link itself for good and bad to the outcome that is shaped by the military, not by the united states .

>> p.j., is this the same military we're talking about that is opening fire on its own citizens, people in support of mohamed morsi, or is there a different military, something that has more of a foreign focus to try to keep the peace in the middle east ? i mean, which military are we funding?

>> it's all of the above. obviously perceptions of the egyptian military will change. going back to january 2011 , they were heroic in terms of committing themselves to not turning their weapons on their own people. now they are doing so. they are defining those in opposition, the the muslim brotherhood , as terrorists. and are going to go through a cycle of repression for a period of time. by the same token, they do play a significant role in the region. it's trying to keep the border between egypt quiet and has succeeded largely in doing so. this is the balancing act the united states is forced to consider. and our fortunes going forward in egypt are tied to the military. there are positive aspects of that and negative aspects of that.

>> among the things we have traditionally done is have these military exercises . of course we heard the president and his spokesperson from the state department said we are canceling this military exercises . and it's not just a symbolic gesture. what is that all about?

>> well, it's a public rebuke of the egyptian military . i think it's a signal that says, look, we see what you're doing. don't go too far. and that has a purpose in this dialogue. but clearly the dilemma for the united states is that our state of objective for the middle east is a return to civilian rule that will will happen at some point. but the conditions that we see in egypt right now hardly are conducive to the rewriting -- transparent rewriting of a constitution and referendum in that constitution, and parliamentary and presidential elections. obviously, what happens in egypt going forward will be different, but it won't be what we called for.

>> all those things that you cite are what the united states would like to see happen there. we talk about all the coverage given to this issue now. it is focused on the aid given to egypt and how it gives some sort of leverage. look at saudi arabia , uae, kuwait. compare that to our $1.3 billion. we're a drop in the bucket. so how much leverage does the the u.s. really have?

>> well, i mean that, aid bias us a lot of things, including the the ability to construct relationships with the egyptian military and the highest echelon. and the middle echelon will be the leaders in five to ten years. it is a significant relationship that that aid has meaning. we have influence and we have an agenda for egypt . but other countries in the region do as well.

>> one last question here to you. egypt is called the the birthplace of jihadist and al qaeda thought. should we be concerned about al qaeda exploiting this crisis, trying to get a hoothold there?

>> well, it does two things, alex. first, any time a country descends in chaos it presents an opportunity for extremists. so i would think that this will become a cause with al qaeda , al swra thatry. i think this is a grave concern. but also the narrative that the united states has used, that participant other government is a large component of the solution to extremism within the middle east . that narrative has been decimated because clearly we are no longer able to credibly advance because we have not involved it a coup. a narrative of democracy in the middle east .

>> a complicated time. p.j. crowley,