A tense situation is developing between President Obama and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, and more broadly, between the United States and Egypt. Morsi was elected in June 2012 after Egypt’s former leader, Hosni Mubarak was effectively ousted in violent protests in Egypt. Egypt under Mubarak was widely considered an American ally, but recent events have shown that Morsi may have a different idea of U.S.- Egypt relations.
Morsi is part of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood group and Egypt’s first democratically elected leader. The United States supported the Arab Spring and supports democracy in the region, but the United States, in order to seem legitimate in its championing of democracy, also has to accept the leaders who are legitimately elected. Relations between the U.S. and Egypt in a democratic, post-Mubarak era may result in decreased United States influence in the region.
The anti-Islam video referred to as “Innocence of Muslims” sparked both protests in Cairo and the beginning of increased tension between President Obama and President Morsi. Obama sharply criticized Morsi for not acting quickly to denounce the protestors, while Morsi insisted he was trying not to be rash. In not reacting quickly, Morsi accomplished political goals by supporting the feelings of offended Muslims and resisting the United States’ desires.
When Obama addressed the United Nations general assembly on Tuesday, he defended the right to free speech for all people around the globe. Specifically, he stated that while the video negatively depicting Islam’s prophet Muhammad is highly offensive, the filmmaker was within his rights to make it. Also on Tuesday, at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, Morsi referred to the same video. However, his message was that there should be limitations on free speech, particularly when it could have serious international consequences. The differential reactions demonstrate that not all democratically elected leaders share the same values.
In an interview with The New York Times, Morsi portrayed Mubarak as somewhat controlled by the United States and expressed that the new Egypt under his leadership would not simply fall in line with American policies. He seemed to think that the United States has been imposing its world-view on Egypt, and that that practice needs to end. Additionally, he stated that he wanted America to take steps to fix its relationship with the Middle East, particularly through the support of a Palestinian state. Morsi knows that the United States has a strong relationship with Israel that it will not soon abandon, and he knows that Egypt receives substantial aid money from the United States, so his message seems to be an attempt to win approval at home and in the Middle East more broadly rather than true negotiation.
Obama and Morsi both commented that Egypt and the United States are not enemies, but neither president is ready to classify the two countries as allies.
Both presidents are interacting with the other for political gain at home. Obama wants to seem tough on foreign policy in the election following criticism by Romney. Morsi wants to curry favor with his people and the rest of the Arab world by opposing Obama’s position on the anti-Islam video and paying lip service to Palestinian self-rule. Morsi and Egypt, long a country of relative stability in the region and an American ally, is turning away from the United States and turning to the Arab world. America is coming to the realization that Western values do not always accompany democracy. In supporting the Arab Spring and democracy in the Middle East, the United States got what it asked for, but it may not have gotten what it truly wanted.
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