President Barack Obama has quietly cancelled a politically risky plan to meet this week with Egypt’s new Islamist president.
The plan was cancelled amid a wave of riots and attacks in Arab countries that have damaged Obama’s campaign-trail claim to foreign policy competence.
In 2011, Obama had “bilateral” meetings with 13 Arab and world leaders during the annual U.S. summit. This year, amid the foreign policy meltdown, his schedule shows no so-called “bilats” with any foreign leaders.
The cancelled visit with Morsi was mentioned in a Sept. 23 New York Times article about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist who now governs the Arab region’s most important country.
Despite critical 2011 support from Obama for the revolt that removed Hosni Mubarak, Morsi is now demanding restrictions on U.S. free speech that is critical of Islam, demanding more U.S. support for the anti-Israeli Islamist governments in Gaza and the West Bank, and more financial aid to help the cash-strapped Egyptian government buy food and fuel for its population of 82 million people.
These Islamist demands clash with Obama’s promise of good U.S.-Arab relations made in his June 2009 “New Beginning “ speech in Cairo.
That controversial speech reversed President George W. Bush’s policy of opposition to Islamists’ demands for theocratic governments in Egypt and other Muslim-majority states.
To emphasize the reversal, Obama even invited some members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement to his Cairo speech.
Following elections in 2011 and 2012, that Islamist movement now controls Egypt, and is taking steps to end the 1979 peace deal between Egypt and Israel.
Morsi complimented Obama, telling the New York Times that Obama had “decisively and quickly” supported Egypt’s Islamist and smaller secular parties by helping remove Egypt’s autocratic, pro-Western government. The article downplayed the proposed Obama-Morsi meeting, which was highlighted by the Egyptian press in July.
Morsi’s request to meet with Obama “received a cool reception … [from the White House, and] mindful of the complicated election-year politics of a visit with Egypt’s Islamist leader, M. Morsi dropped his request,” claimed the New York Times.
However, the cancelled meeting reflects the recent schism between Obama and Morsi.
In July, White House spokesman Jay Carney said he expected a meeting at this week’s United Nations summit.
“I expect that the President will have a chance to meet with or see President Morsi at the UN General Assembly,” Carney told reporters during the midday press conference at the White House.
“We haven’t worked details out of that, but we expect that he will be able to see him.”
By August 22, amid increasing hostility and pressure from Morsi and Islamists, Carney was more cautious when asked about the expected Obama-Morsi meeting.
“In terms of any foreign leader visits or meetings that the President may have, I know that he’ll have at least a couple of bilateral meetings when he’s at the United Nations General Assembly, but I don’t have any meetings to read out with President Morsi,” Carney said.
Three days after the Sept. 11 Islamist attacks in Cairo and Libya, Carney denied any meeting plans.
“The President has no bilateral meetings scheduled at this time while he’s in New York,” he said.
That denial came three days Morsi allowed an Islamist mob to break into the U.S. embassy grounds in Cairo, burn the U.S. flag and raise an Islamist flag on Sept. 11. “We took our time” responding to the Sept. 11 attack in Cairo, Morsi told The New York Times.
On Sept. 13, Obama suddenly described Egypt as neither an ally nor an enemy, marking a sharp breakdown in relations after 33 years of U.S.-Egyptian-Israeli cooperation.
The Cairo attack took place the same day that a jihadi group killed four U.S. officials — including an ambassador– at the unfortified and poorly-guarded U.S. consulate in next-door Libya.
Obama and his deputies initially blamed the Sept. 11 attacks on a “natural” Arab reaction to an anti-Islamic video posted on YouTube by a California producer.
That claim allowed them to deny that empowered Islamist groups launched the attacks because of their Islamist, anti-Western beliefs, and has minimized the established media’s attention to the breakdown of Obama’s Middle East policy.
Over the last week, Morsi and his deputies have used Obama’s focus on the video to portray themselves to Egyptians as determined defenders of Islam.
For example, Morsi’s prime minister Hisham Qandil said Sept. 15 that he expected changes in U.S. law and media practice following the release of a 14-minute anti-Islam YouTube video and a week of ongoing unrest in the Middle East.
The United States should “take the necessary measures to ensure insulting billions of people – one and a half billion people – and their beliefs does not happen, and people pay for what they do, and at the same time make sure that the reflections of the true Egyptian and Muslims is well [represented] in Western media,” Qandil said, according to the the English-language site of Egypt’s main newspaper, Al Ahram.
And Qandil’s statement also hinted at more violence if the Islamists’ demands were not met.
“I think we need to work out something around this because we cannot wait and see this happen again,” he said.