Experts say that Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, has the ability and the political incentives to raise or lower the Arab street’s pressure against President Barack Obama in the run-up to the 2012 election.
“Obama is hostage to Morsi,” said Michael Rubin, an Arab-region expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
“But part of the reason is that Obama refuses to make Morsi hostage to him,” Rubin added.
This puts Obama in a politically dangerous position as he attempts to bring the spreading embassy crisis under control before November’s election.
Morsi has a political incentive to focus Egyptians’ attention on the circus of protest against Obama, because Morsi is trying to consolidate the power of his populist faction — the Muslim Brotherhood — amid political pressure from even more aggressively anti-American Islamist groups.
Obama can serve as a distraction and scapegoat because both America and Obama are widely hated in the deeply Islamic and very poor country. Seventy-six percent of Egyptians oppose Obama’s reelection, according to poll released June 13 by the Pew Research Center.
Moreover, Morsi’s Egypt is also near-broke, and he needs continued U.S. and Arab donations to provide subsidized bread to its impoverished population of 90 million. Currently, Morsi’s deputies are seeking a $1 billion loan-forgiveness deal from Washington, and a loan of up to $4.5 billion from the World Bank.
Morsi’s ability to pressure Obama was demonstrated Sept. 11, when Morsi’s police did not stop one of the more-aggressive Islamist groups from staging a long-planned protest at the Cairo embassy, 11 years after the 9/11 atrocity in 2001.
The riot-planners boosted their turnout by protesting a low-budget video from a mysterious California producer that oafishly satirized Islam’s reputed prophet, Muhammad. But the planners originally organized the event to demand the release of a jihadi leader — Omar Abdel-Rahman — from a U.S. jail, according to Eric Trager, an expert on Islamists at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
That street pressure was also aimed at Morsi, who had promised to help free Abdel-Rahman during a political rally in June 2012.
That was a unrealistic promise, because the U.S. public will strongly oppose the release of Abdel-Rahman, who was cited as a religious guide by Osama bin Laden and spurred the 1993 truck-bomb attack on New York’s Twin Towers.
While Morsi’s cops stayed away, the Sept. 11 rioters taunted Obama, chanting “Obama, Obama there are still a billion Osamas.”
They invaded the embassy’s grounds, burned the U.S. flag, hoisted an Islamic flag and may have damaged Obama’s election-trail claim to foreign-policy competence.
Only on Sept. 13 did Morsi say publicly that he would defend the embassy.
That promise came the same day he bargained with Obama via a transatlantic communications link.
“President 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… [and] Morsi expressed his condolences for the tragic loss of American life in Libya and emphasized that Egypt would honor its obligation to ensure the safety of American personnel,” according to a White House summary of the closed-door conversation.
That promise likely was a top-level demand by Obama, who told a Telemundo interviewer Sept. 12 that Egypt’s failure to protect the embassy would be “a real big problem.”
It is not clear if Morsi and his deputies will deliver on that promise every day until Nov. 6.
Amid the embassy protests, officials at Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party released pacific messages via their English-language announcements, while using their Arab-language announcement to urge more protests at the embassy.
Moreover, Morsi wants benefits from Obama. The Egyptian president wants the $1 billion and the $4.5 billion in aid from the U.S. and the World Bank, but also wants to be seen as the popular defender of Islam against American critics.
On Sept. 13, he stepped up his domestically popular demand for Obama to punish the almost-unknown producer of the little-seen, low-budget video that satirizes Islam’s founder, Mohammed.
The video-makers “are not accepted, not by people in Egypt nor other Arab and Islamic countries, nor by their own people,” Morsi declared at a televised event in Brussels, Belgium.
“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,” he claimed to his audience in Egypt, Europe and Washington.
But instead of citing the First Amendment to disavow any control over Islam’s critics, Obama conceded half of Morsi’s claim.
Obama said he “rejects efforts to denigrate Islam,” according to the official readout of their Sept. 13 talk, matching his Rose Garden condemnation Sept. 12.
Morsi can use that concession at home to burnish his populist anti-American credentials — and to also to revive the issue anytime he wishes before the election.
If he wished, Obama could escape Morsi’s grip, Rubin said.
He can declare the California video to be non-negotiable by asserting the nation’s First Amendment, Rubin said.
Obama’s took a step in that direction Sept. 12, by telling a CBS interviewer that “we believe in the First Amendment… [which] is one of the hallmarks of our Constitution that I’m sworn to uphold, and so we are always going to uphold the rights for individuals to speak their mind.”
Hillary Clinton played that constitutional card the next day, with more flair. “Our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and in our law,” she said during a meeting with leaders from Morocco, a Muslim country concurrently governed by a Western-oriented King and an elected Islamist government. “We do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be,” she said.
Obama can also use Egypt’s failing finances to pressure Morsi, Rubin said. “Egypt is is is running out of cash… Egypt can’t feed itself, and Obama could use aid to bring Egypt into line, but he simply throws this leverage out the window,” said Rubin.
Obama’s spokesman twice insisted Sept. 13 that Obama would not use aid to escape Egyptian pressure.
“Is the President considering withholding any aid or putting new strings attached to the aid that’s already in place?” a reporter asked Jay Carney during a campaign trip to Colorado.
“No… We are focused on assisting Egypt as it — and the new government there — as it makes its way in the post-Mubarak era for that country,” Carney said.
“So no thoughts to amending any of that aid?” a reporter asked. “No,” Carney repeated.
Obama’s financial support for the brotherhood is bad for the U.S. and for Arabs, Rubin said.
The free aid reduces public pressure on Morsi to deliver economic growth and good government in Egypt, Rubin said.
The free aid also increase the chance of a religious war between Morsi’s Islamist government and its rival neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, he said.
Egypt’s poverty, he said, requires Morsi to choose “guns or butter, and by giving him butter, [Obama] is allowing Egypt to buy guns.
Outside Egypt, More broadly, the competition for public support in the Arab world gives the various national affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood their own populist incentives to used any pretexts to pressure Obama when he’s vulnerable during the election campaign.
Unsurprisingly, the brotherhood affiliates in Libya, Yemen, Jordan and Morocco are now threatening U.S. embassies while complaining about the California video.
“Hurting the feelings of one and a half billion Muslims cannot be tolerated, and the people’s anger and fury for their Faith is invariably predictable, often unstoppable… we demand that all those involved in such crimes be urgently brought to trial,” says a Sept. 13 English-language threat on the brotherhood’s international website.
That shared brotherhood message uses the same language as the Cairo embassy’s controversial Sept. 11 statement, which sought to appease the rioters.
“Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy [and] we firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” said the Cairo statement.
The statement matched the president’s prior condemnation of anti-Islam criticism.
Gov. Mitt Romney sharply criticized that embassy statement late Sept. 11, saying it illustrated the administration’s sympathy for the Islamists.
“It is s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” said his statement.