Egyptian liberals, moderates angry over American support for Muslim Brotherhood
CAIRO — As tension mounted here in anticipation of Sunday protests against President Mohamed Morsy, another foe emerged for many Egyptians: the United States.
Four people died in clashes — including an American student stabbed while photographing fighting in Alexandria — before any crowds took to the streets.
For days, Egyptians have steeled themselves for what many expect to be an explosive day. Conversations about the political turmoil often end with the phrase, “May God save us.”
“We have to go down to the street,” said a serious-faced Ramez Nashed, 32.
He said the opposition's rally — which it hopes will attract millions of supporters on the one-year anniversary of Morsy's election — is not just directed at the ruling Muslim Brotherhood but also at fuel and water shortages, power blackouts, rising food prices and a collapsed economy.
Yet Nashed, like so many in the opposition, asked another question, too: “Why is America supporting Morsy and the Brotherhood?”
This most-populous Arab nation is still considered a key U.S. ally, despite its Islamist turn after a 2011 revolution ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.
It pockets about $1.3 billion annually in U.S. military aid and $250 million in other U.S. assistance.
For months, Egyptian liberals and moderates have grown angrier over what they say is inexplicable U.S. support for Islamists.
In Tahrir Square, Cairo's epicenter of protest since 2011, graffiti near the Egyptian Museum declares: “Down with the Brotherhood, Down with America!”
On a downtown building, a poster shows a distorted portrait of U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson over the words, “Crone, Go Home.” On a nearby corner, another poster says, “Obama supports terrorism.”
“For the Christian people here, for 10 years America was our dream,” said Nashed, who works in an electronics store. “Now we are afraid of America. … I have family in America, and I know the Americans don't support terrorism.”
Anger and confusion over the Obama administration's policy flared here in April and June of 2012, when Islamist parliamentarians met with State Department, National Security Council and other senior U.S. officials in Washington.
One of those was Hani Nour Eldin of Gama'a Islamiyya, a group whose brutal attacks of the 1990s — including a role in the 1997 bombing of New York's World Trade Center — put it on the U.S. terror watch-list, where it remains. The group renounced terrorism and is a parliamentary ally of the Brotherhood.
Liberal rage ignited again in November when U.S. officials responded tepidly to Morsy's assuming near-dictatorial power to enact a hastily written constitution — one that, Islamists later crowed, lacked many basic rights.
In a recent speech, Patterson defended working with the Morsy government “across a huge range of issues” because it was democratically elected.
“Some say that street action will produce better results than elections. To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical,” she said. Instead, she encouraged Egyptians to organize and participate in politics.
Her address infuriated Egyptians who say she neglected to mention any presidential abuses.
“The real problem of the speech is the mere fact that it was given at all — and that, once given, the ambassador ignored the real cause of the current Egyptian turmoil, which is the forced and vile constitution passed by nearly extra-legal means,” said an Egyptian American blogger writing under the pen name Salama Moussa.
“The least she could have done is couple her stout defense of President Morsy with a call to amend a constitution that violates most civilized norms, including American values.”
Days after Patterson's speech, Egyptian media filmed her leaving a meeting with Khairat El Shater, the Brotherhood's No. 2 man and widely considered the real power behind Morsy.
That visit contributed to Egyptian suspicions that Washington backs the Brotherhood.
“Why was she meeting with him?” asked Nashed, echoing a popular question. “He is not elected or in government.”
In downtown Cairo, Amar Karim, 33, pointed to the anti-Patterson poster. “This woman, she helps the Muslim Brotherhood and talks very good about Morsy,” he said. “(She) works with Shater to do business with the Muslim Brotherhood, at the expense of the Egyptian people.
“I love the American people, but why is the American government interfering here?”
Spokesmen for the U.S. embassy here and the State Department in Washington declined to comment.
The U.S. embassy has issued warnings to Americans in or considering travel to Egypt, and it is evacuating some nonessential personnel, according to news reports.
On tour in South Africa, President Obama said he supports “peaceful methods to bring about change in Egypt,” adding: “Our most immediate concern with respect to protests this weekend have to do with our embassies and consulates.
“We do not take sides in terms of who should be elected by the Egyptian people,” he said. “We do take sides in terms of observing a process for democracy and rule of law.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at email@example.com.