Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi today in Brussels made his most detailed comments yet on the Sept. 11 protests/attacks that took place at the U.S. embassy in Cairo (and the more deadly assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in Libya):
“Muslims and Christians in Egypt are equal citizens and have the same rights… We are cautious about those principles and human values, also respecting visitors and respecting tourists… and respecting and protecting diplomatic delegations and private and public properties, and not attacking them.
“Freedom, and ensuring safety of self, and protecting this freedom and people and preserving property is the responsibility of the Egyptian nation.”
He continued: “The Egyptian nation is capable now of protecting people’s opinions and allowing them breathing room, as well as protecting diplomatic delegations and all foreigners, visitors, tourists, embassies and consulates in Egypt.”
“I see in Egypt and the Arab and Islamic world a severe anger toward the violations made by a very small number of individuals. They have insulted the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. We stand very strongly against this. We don’t agree with or approve this, and we stand against anyone who tries to raise such false slogans and create these disturbances, tension and hatred between populations.”
“Those [people] are not accepted, not by people in Egypt nor other Arab and Islamic countries, nor by their own people. I affirm that the American people reject this and I’ve called on them to declare their rejection of them, at the same time with our rejection of those bad practices that bring harm and not benefit.”
Got all that? To me, those sound like the words of a president terrified at the thought of losing any side over this week’s crisis — and the sides are too numerous to count.
At home, he certainly can’t be seen as standing weak in defense of Islam, but he also can’t be seen in the United States as condoning violent attacks on the U.S. embassy.
It’s hard to believe that Morsi has been in office for only about 10 weeks — he won (narrowly) Egypt’s presidential runoff on June 24 against former air force commander and Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.
Remember, too, that it’s been just six months since Morsi has appointed his prime minister, Hisham Qandil, and less than a month since Morsi pulled off his more-or-less successful political coup in retiring the military’s chief, Hussein Tantawi, who had served as Egypt’s defense minister since 1991, thereby making Morsi the indisputable head of state.
It’s clear that the U.S. president Barack Obama is none too pleased with Morsi’s reticence in condemning the attacks, especially given the unqualified condemnation offered up across the board by Libya’s political elite yesterday. The U.S. administration, with Obama up for reelection within 60 days, might be justifiably short on patience with the Middle East these days, given the dual crises in Libya and Egypt following the embassy riots, and an Israeli prime minister who is publicly attacking the Obama administration at every turn over Iran’s nuclear weapons program (and despite Morsi’s visit to Tehran, the first of an Egyptian leader since the 1979 Iranian revolution, there’s no love lost in Cairo for Iran).
Above all, Morsi was set to meet with Obama in Washington in October — if that meeting still happens, you better believe it’s going to be incredibly tense. U.S. public opinion has now sharply condemned Morsi, and even the Cairo embassy has taken to snarking at the Muslim Brotherhood via Twitter for talking out of both sides of its mouth (one Arabic, the other English).
Morsi cannot lose the United States and the United States naturally wants to give him the benefit of the doubt — despite the Obama administration’s unease with an Islamist president, Morsi was elected democratically, and the U.S. will want to see the positive outcome of the Arab Spring that it so vociferously trumpeted since the early days of the protests in Tahrir Square back in February 2011. So it’s still in the best interests of the United States to maintain a constructive relationship with Egypt. But Morsi needs U.S. support even more — not just in luring tourists, but in encouraging the foreign investment necessary to revitalize a stagnated, bloated and state-heavy economy, including a much-needed loan from the International Monetary Foundation.
Transforming Egypt’s economy, above all, will be the rubric upon which Egyptian voters are most likely to judge Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, Morsi must also contend with a long-running dispute with the constitutional court over the status of Egypt’s elected parliament, and he must oversee the Constituent Assembly’s drafting of a long-term constitution for Egypt.
Egypt, with over 82 million people, the largest Arab country, has watched, over four decades, as its has ceased to be the one-time intellectual, economic and cultural leader of the Arab World that it once was.
Domestically, he has to balance the Muslim Brotherhood’s interests — after all, the Brotherhood elected Morsi. But he also has to balance the interests of other Egyptians — the far-right, more fundamentalist Salafists, who won the second-largest number of votes in the parliamentary election earlier this year, the secular military and “deep state” interests that still wield considerable power within the Egyptian government apparatus, not to mention the huge swath of Egypt’s underemployed youth, and a small but loud (and worried) minority of Coptic Christians.
Iranian nuclear troubles aside, Morsi is also gently engaging the issue of renegotiating Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. And there’s a small matter of a Syrian civil war — Syria, you may recall, joined Egypt to form the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961, so Morsi has an interest in not allowing Syria’s troubles to spill even wider throughout the Levant.
All of which adds up to the fact that, although Morsi wasn’t looking for a new distraction, he’s certainly now got a new U.S.-sized one. All before marking the three-month anniversary of his presidency.
Photo credit to Reuters.