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U.S., Egypt links grow tense

| Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Egyptian protesters gather around a burning vehicle in downtown Cairo, Egypt, early Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, before police cleared the area after days of protests against a film ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad. Egyptian police on Saturday cleared out protesters who have been clashing with security forces for the past four days near the U.S. Embassy as most cities around the Muslim world reported calm a day after at least six people were killed in a wave of angry protests over an anti-Islam film. AP Photo

CAIRO — A mob assault on the U.S. Embassy here has provoked the first U.S.-Egyptian crisis since the Muslim Brotherhood seized power.

Samer Shehata, a Georgetown University assistant professor of Arab politics, calls it “the beginning of a difficult renegotiating” of U.S.-Egyptian relations.

In Washington, the anti-U.S. frenzy across the Arab world raises doubts about President Obama's much-heralded “new beginning” with Muslims, initiated with his June 2009 speech at Cairo University.

Here the concern is about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy's competence or intentions.

The genesis of the embassy attack was a call by Egypt's ultra-Islamist Salafis — parliamentary partners of the Brotherhood — to protest an obscure anti-Islam video filmed in the United States.

Arabic-dubbed clips of the amateurish video were shown on a Saudi-supported Salafi satellite channel here, and outrage quickly spread.

The Brotherhood, which won parliamentary control in January and the presidency in June, joined the call for protests on its Arabic-language website.

So did Gama'a Islamiya, a one-time terrorist group whose representative quietly met in June with White House and State Department staff in Washington.

Those calls were widely reported by Egyptian media. Ominously, they coincided with the 11th anniversary of al-Qaida's 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

The mob attacking the embassy included “Ultras,” young soccer hooligans, who scaled a security wall, shredded a U.S. flag and raised a black al-Qaida banner to chants of “God is great!”

The lack of security at the embassy left many wondering if, in Shehata's words, “Morsy might not even fully control the security forces.”

More surprising was his ensuing silence, especially in contrast to other regional leaders.

Libyan officials swiftly condemned a consulate attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three embassy staffers in Benghazi; Yemen's president denounced a mob attack on the U.S. Embassy there; and Yemeni troops battled the crowd.

Anti-U.S. or indecisive?

Khaled Elgindy, a fellow of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, calls Morsy's initial silence “inappropriate.”

“You are the head of state,” he said. “An attack on an embassy of any kind — much less a mission belonging to the United States (with whom) you have a longstanding relationship — is unacceptable at any level.”

Morsy waited more than 24 hours to comment; even then, he did not condemn the attack. His statement, derided as “mealy-mouthed” by one analyst, was posted on Facebook, a web venue viewed by relatively few Egyptians.

That prompted a frosty response from Obama, who said Egypt is neither an ally nor an enemy.

As anti-U.S. riots erupted in other Muslim countries, the Brotherhood called for a nationwide protest on Friday, then backed down.

And not until Friday did Morsy forcefully condemn the previous three days of rioting.

Some Egyptians consider his response to be tacit support of anti-U.S. sentiment. Others say he loathes taking tough or unpopular stands and tried publicly to “out-Islamize” the Salafis.

Still others say anti-Americanism runs deep here, based on U.S. support for ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak and for Israel, as well as the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A fourth view is that Morsy saw the protests as a way to distract Egyptians from domestic problems and frustration with the Brotherhood's rule.

Joshua Stacher, a Kent State University professor and expert on Arab politics, said Morsy “doesn't owe his position to the United States,” as Libyan and Yemeni leaders do. He wonders if Morsy is just “testing the limits of the relationship.”

Egypt has been America's most important Arab ally for three decades; it pockets $1.5 billion annually in U.S. aid, mostly for its military.

Howls of laughter

The Brotherhood's reaction is not surprising to conservative U.S. observers, who have long predicted the party would turn away from Washington's sphere.

But it did provoke an unusual late-week online spat between Brotherhood and American officials.

Brotherhood deputy leader Khairat El Shater posted a message of “condolence” on Ikhwanweb, the party's English-language Twitter feed.

The U.S. Embassy tweeted back: “Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”

The exchange inspired howls of laughter from Egyptians, who quickly found the Brotherhood's Arabic Twitter account and its tweets glorifying the embassy attack. One of those read: “Egyptians rise up to victory for the prophet.”

Morsy's long-planned Sept. 23 meeting with Obama in Washington remains scheduled, although some observers wonder if it will occur.

“Morsy needs Washington, and he has to realize it,” said Georgetown's Shehata.

Egypt is in financial turmoil: Tourism, a key revenue source, has evaporated since the 2011 revolution; unemployment is a staggering 12.6 percent; and foreign investment is essential to restart the moribund economy.

A $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Egypt, which surely needs U.S. approval, is pending; so is Obama's request for a $1 billion debt relief package.

Some in Congress want U.S. aid to be reduced or eliminated; outside voices are calling for a tourism boycott.

Kent State's Stacher believes U.S. business interests in Egypt are too strong and the countries' relationship will survive, although not, perhaps, as in the past. He believes Morsy will try to forge a more independent path.

The question he asks: “Is Egypt too big to fail?”

Yet last week's unrest “potentially tells us something about the possible difficulties and shape of the new U.S.-Egypt relationship, as evidenced by Morsy's actions and Obama's words,” said Shehata. “We could really see some difficulties in the coming period.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at

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