BEIRUT: Anti-American protests in Cairo have exposed brewing tensions between the U.S. and the new Islamist government there and highlighted the Egyptian president’s moves to restore a historically dominant regional role, analysts and diplomats say.
Tough words from U.S. President Barack Obama, who told Spanish-language network Telemundo late Wednesday that Egypt – once a staunch U.S. ally in a hostile neighborhood – could not be considered an ally nor an enemy, made stark the growing divergence.
“The president was not speakingidly,” said Edward Walker, U.S. ambassador to Egypt under Hosni Mubarak from 1994 to 1997 and professor of global politics at Hamilton College.
“The president clearly thinks there is something wrong.
“If [President Mohammed] Mursi continues the way he is going things will be more and more strained.”
Islamists angry over an offensive anti-Islam film screened on the Internet besieged the U.S. Embassy in Cairo Tuesday night.
This was followed several hours later hours by a deadly attack on the American consulate in Libya’s Benghazi which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other consular officials.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, on whose party ticket the newly elected Mursi came to power, called for further protests against the film Friday.
Demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy turned violent Wednesday and Thursday, with protesters tearing down the Stars and Stripes and replacing it with the black Islamic flag.
While the new Libyan leadership was quick to condemn the violence against the embassy officials in Benghazi Wednesday, it was only Thursday that Mursi made outright calls for protection of embassy staff, a delay that was noted among U.S. officials.
Even then, his remarks were tepid.
“We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet,” Mursi said in remarks broadcast by state television, in reference to the controversial film.
“[But] it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad,” the president said on his first European tour in Brussels. “I call on everyone to take that into consideration, not to violate Egyptian law ... not to assault embassies,” he said.
Mursi is treading a fine line, some analysts say, between proving his Islamist credentials to his Muslim Brotherhood backers, and assuring Egypt’s traditional ally the U.S. that he can maintain security in the country, whose 1979 treaty with Israel forms the cornerstone of their policy interests in the region.
The U.S is currently considering canceling $1 billion in Egyptian debt as part of a package of economic aid to the country, which is recovering from costs incurred through the January 2011 revolution.
Obama, seven weeks before U.S. elections, is also under pressure to assure Israel and his constituents that security and American interests can be preserved in a newly democratic Egypt, after publicly siding with the Egyptian street in throwing out Mubarak.
“Overall our interests still compel the U.S. and Egypt to act together,” Walker said.
“But this could get out of hand.
“Mursi has a problem with Salafists, and he has to deal with it.”
Walker noted that the $1 billion relief package is still not through the U.S. Congress and said investors in Egypt would likely be jittery about pumping cash into the country in the current security and political environment.
“We need a good relationship with Egypt, but not at any cost,” he said.
The latest security incident against Americans in the country comes amid increasingly strident diplomatic moves by Mursi that appear blatantly contrary to U.S. interests.
Mursi’s highly publicized visit to Tehran this month to attend a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement was closely followed by the launch of an Egypt-led initiative on Syria, bringing together regional stakeholders Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt.
The U.S., which accuses Syria’s ally Iran of assisting the Syrian regime in oppressing popular resistance through military and financial means, has repeatedly said it sees no constructive role for Tehran in talks on Syria.
A U.S. State Department spokesman told The Daily Star that while the U.S. welcomes regional attention to the crisis, “It is ironic that Iran would appear to be so interested in resolving the conflict when it has been Assad’s principal backer in the region.”
But a diplomatic source familiar with the quartet initiative said Mursi is working assertively to revive Egypt’s regional dominance after years of stagnation and marginalization under Mubarak.
The source, who asked not to be named, said there was consensus among participants that any resolution to the Syria conflict should preserve regional interests above all else.
On the U.S. relationship, the source described American aid as “insignificant,” pointing to a recent pledge from Qatar to step in with an additional $18 billion in investment.
“The relationship with the U.S. is a security relationship more than anything else ... and the U.S. needs that relationship more than the Egyptians,” the source said.
Senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy David Makovsky disagreed, pointing to an additional $1.3 billion the U.S. also supplies in military hardware to Egypt.
But he said recent events had raised “real concerns about Mursi’s commitment to the U.S. relationship.”
Recent moves to arrest journalists and the sacking of a number of pro-U.S. military officials had also raised doubts in the Obama administration about Mursi’s commitment to democratic principles, he said.
However, Makovsky added that it was not too late to restore and build on a cordial relationship.
“There needs to be a very candid, private conversation between Cairo and Washington, based on clear expectations of the other party and a clear understanding of the basis of the relationship,” he said.
“It’s too important to give up.”