Egypt May Be Bigger Concern Than Libya for White House
By Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, NY Times, September 13, 2012
WASHINGTON—For all the harrowing images of the deadly attack on the American mission in Benghazi, the Obama administration is grappling with the possibility that its far bigger long-term problem lies in Egypt, not Libya.
Hours before the attacks in Benghazi on Tuesday, the American Embassy in Cairo came under siege from protesters. While the violence there did not result in any American deaths, the tepid response from the Egyptian government to the assault gave officials in Washington—already troubled by the direction of President Mohamed Morsi’s new Islamist government—further cause for concern.
President Obama telephoned Mr. Morsi and the president of Libya’s National Assembly, the White House said early on Thursday, in calls that seemed different in tone, suggesting dissatisfaction with Cairo’s response as opposed to Tripoli’s.
To Mohammed Magarief, the leader of Libya’s National Assembly, Mr. Obama “expressed appreciation for the cooperation we have received from the Libyan government and people in responding to this outrageous attack,” the White House said in a statement.
To Mr. Morsi, there was no mention of appreciation. Instead, the White House said in a separate but parallel statement that Mr. Obama “underscored the importance of Egypt following through on its commitment to cooperate with the United States in securing U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel.”
President Obama, speaking in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, pointedly noted that Libyan authorities had tried to help the American effort to protect diplomats in Benghazi.
The president found less reason to be pleased with Egypt, historically the second-largest recipient of American foreign aid after Israel, at $2 billion a year. Mr. Morsi issued only a mild rebuke of the rioters—and on Facebook—while his movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, has called for a second day of protests against the lurid anti-Muslim video that set off the riots. And though the Egyptian police coordinated with American officials, Mr. Morsi waited 24 hours before issuing his statement against the militants who stormed the embassy; Libyan authorities issued immediate, unequivocal statements of regret for the bloodshed in Benghazi.
On Thursday, Mr. Morsi said in a televised statement that while he supported peaceful protests, it was wrong to attack people or embassies, Reuters reported. “Expressing opinion, freedom to protest and announcing positions is guaranteed but without assaulting private or public property, diplomatic missions or embassies,” he said. Reuters also said that he condemned the ambassador’s killing.
Mr. Obama seemed to indicate that the American relationship with Egypt is evolving. “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy,” he said in an interview with Telemundo that was broadcast Wednesday night on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. “I think it’s still a work in progress, but certainly in this situation, what we’re going to expect is that they are responsive to our insistence that our embassy is protected, our personnel is protected.”
For the United States, “politically the bigger issue is Egypt,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel. “On the one hand, you didn’t have Americans getting killed, but this was the fourth time an embassy was assaulted in Cairo with the Egyptian police doing precious little,” Mr. Indyk said. “And where was President Morsi’s condemnation of this?”
While the killing of Mr. Stevens is a “tragedy,” said Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, “in the longer term, Libya mainly is a problem for Libyans.” What happens in Egypt, by contrast, from “popular attitudes toward the U.S., to its domestic economy, to relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, to relations between Cairo and Jerusalem, to the situation in Sinai, will profoundly affect the region, and so will profoundly affect America’s posture in the region,” he said.
The violence in Libya and Egypt reinforces what has been true from the start of the Arab uprisings last year: These are homegrown popular movements over which the United States has at best limited influence.