White House downplays Islamist push for power in Egypt

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The White House released a short note on Tuesday downplaying rising concerns about the growing power of Islamist theocrats in Egypt.

The White House note instead played up the relatively minor issue of economic trade, even as a pro-democracy riot broke out at Egypt’s presidential palace. 

Egypt’s president is an Islamist who is pushing a controversial draft constitution that would establish Islam as the foundation for the nation’s laws, society and business sector.

“National Security Advisor Tom Donilon met today with Assistant to the President of Egypt for Foreign Relations and International Cooperation Dr. Essam el-Haddad,” began the press statement, which was released 7.32 p.m. EST, after the evening TV news shows had aired.

“They discussed a broad range of issues, including our bilateral economic cooperation, joint efforts to promote regional security and build on the cease-fire in Gaza, and Egypt’s democratic transition and the need to move forward with a peaceful and inclusive transition that respects the rights of all Egyptians,” the statement said.

Since Nov. 22, when Egypt’s president declared himself exempt from judicial rulings, White House spokesman Jay Carney has said little about the coup and turmoil.

President Barack Obama has said nothing in public on the matter, even though he pressured Egypt’s army to remove the country’s secular autocrat in 2011 — a move that helped the Islamist group gain the presidency and a super-majority in the country’s parliament.

Tuesday’s brief announcement came as thousands of pro-democracy protesters pushed up against Egypt’s presidential palace, prompting a back-door exit by President Mohammed Morsi. (RELATED: Morsi flees palace as police battle rioters

However, the anti-theocracy protesters are outnumbered by demonstrators organized by the Muslim Brotherhood group, whose affiliated Freedom and Justice Party won half the seats in the Egypt parliament in the 2011 and 2012 elections.

Morsi is a former hard-line ideological enforcer for the group who purged senior members in 2009 when they urged for greater openness, according to Eric Trager, an expert on Islamic groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Only 25 percent of the parliament’s seats were won by non-Islamists, including Christians, pro-business advocates, leftists and liberals.

Despite high stakes for the U.S. and for Egypt’s population for 72 million, the turmoil has gotten little attention in Washington.

That’s chiefly because White House officials are focusing the media’s attention on the president’s campaign to make the GOP agree to higher tax rates to avert the fiscal cliff.

The turmoil is helping to determine whether Egypt becomes an Islamic theocracy like Iran.

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