Egypt’s president is U.S. critic, but he could be an ally (WASHINGTON POST) By Ernesto Londoño and Karin Brulliard CAIRO, EGYPT 06/26/12)
WASHINGTON POST Articles-Index-Top
CAIRO — At first glance, Egyptian president-elect Mohamed Morsi might
appear like a nightmare for Washington’s interests in the region. The
low-key Islamist has spoken vitriolically about American policy in
the Middle East, refers to Israelis as “tyrants” and has expressed
doubts that the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by terrorists.
And yet, U.S. officials and analysts express guarded optimism that
Washington can build a strong working relationship with the veteran
Muslim Brotherhood politician, whose victory was confirmed Sunday.
Morsi and his aides say that they, too, are upbeat about the future
of Egypt’s relationship with the United States, though not without
Much of the hope is based on pragmatism: At least in the immediate
future, any ideological objections to U.S. policy are likely to take
a back seat to Morsi’s need to stabilize Egypt and improve its
floundering economy — both of which will require help from
Washington, analysts say.
“The U.S. will have leverage with the Brotherhood because the
Brotherhood needs the U.S. and Europe for Egypt’s long-term economic
recovery,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha
Center who has met with Morsi and several Brotherhood leaders in
recent months. “They are going to need billions of dollars in loans
and investments if they want to turn around their economy.”
Morsi spokesman and adviser Gehad Haddad said the incoming president,
who earned a PhD in Southern California during the 1970s, has begun
to build healthy relationships with U.S. officials.
“We expect and will work towards a strong strategic relationship”
with Washington, Haddad said in an interview Monday. “It will help to
bridge the gap between how both populations view each other.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland echoed that sentiment,
telling reporters Monday: “We look forward to working with the
government on issues that it’s going to need to confront.”
Still, questions remain about Morsi’s long-term dependability as a
Key among them are the extent of his powers — which Egypt’s ruling
generals recently curbed — and the degree to which he will be
beholden to the Brotherhood’s secretive leaders.
“Is Mohamed Morsi the president of Egypt, or does the Muslim
Brotherhood hold the presidency,” asked Tarek Masoud, an assistant
professor of public policy at Harvard University who has met Morsi
Mohammed Habib, a former deputy chairman of the Brotherhood who has
broken ranks with the group, said Morsi will probably try to
establish a relationship of equals with Washington.
“Egyptian decisions will not be left up to the American
administration, as the deposed president agreed to before,” Habib
said, referring to ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.
U.S. officials hope to make a strong impression on Morsi, 60, during
an upcoming visit by a senior American official to Cairo, said
another senior administration official, who was not authorized to
speak for the record.
U.S. officials say they hope to use hundreds of millions of dollars
in unspent American aid earmarked for Egypt as a tool to boost their
leverage and build trust with a Morsi administration by finding areas
of common interest.
Those efforts are seen as imperative to safeguarding Egypt’s decades-
old peace treaty with Israel. In an interview with The Washington
Post in February 2011, when Morsi was the head of the Brotherhood’s
newly formed Freedom and Justice Party, he said upending the treaty
was not a priority. But he described the status quo of the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict as unacceptable.
“You cannot talk about a country with 5 million refugees,” he said at
the time, calling Israelis “tyrants” who have been protected by the
United States for too long.
Haddad, his spokesman, said Monday that “we will not be the party
that breaks this treaty.” But he added that Egyptians would see “very
swift” and significant changes in the country’s policy toward Israel.
Haddad said these will include more vocal support for Palestinian
statehood and a meaningful lifting of the blockade on goods passing
through the Rafah crossing, which serves as the main gateway between
Egypt and the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory ruled by the
militant group Hamas.
Morsi has at times dabbled in conspiracy theories: When discussing
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he was incredulous that a plane
could “hit the tower like a knife in butter” and suggested
that “something must have happened from inside,” according to a
conversation that Hamid, the analyst, recounted in a recent article
published in Foreign Policy magazine.
One issue that U.S. officials are likely to want to tackle quickly in
their talks with Morsi is the future of American aid for civil
society and other pro-democracy organizations. That type of
assistance came to a virtual standstill this year as the Egyptian
government criminally charged several Americans and Egyptians
employed by pro-democracy groups and shut down their offices. U.S.
officials are nervously watching whether Faiza Abou el-Naga, the
minister who coordinates international aid and was the architect of
the crackdown, remains in the new government.
Haddad said Morsi has not made decisions about his cabinet, but the
spokesman suggested that Naga’s days in government could be numbered.
“Faiza has been a symbol of the Mubarak regime in every way we hate,”
On the values front
The extent to which Morsi might seek to tilt the country’s social
mores to fit the Brotherhood’s conservative principles also looms
large for U.S. policymakers. In the interview last year, Morsi said
steering Egypt in a more overtly religious direction was far from a
priority, suggesting that his party was inclined to take a live-and-
Asked about his views on the United States, Morsi said he had great
admiration for Americans, their work ethic and their institutions.
But he had harsh words for U.S. policy in the region. American
officials, he said, “are buying the hatred of people in this area
with taxpayers’ money.”
President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, during which he sought to
boost the U.S. image in the Arab world, included “very nice words,”
Morsi said. “But none of them have been applied.”
Earning a doctorate in engineering at the University of Southern
California during the late 1970s gave Morsi an intimate and extended
look at the United States. Two of his sons were born during that time.
Farghalli A. Mohamed, an Egyptian-born engineering professor who
taught Morsi, described him as a quiet, humble and hardworking
student who was moderately religious.
“I see a lot of students who are outspoken, participate in student
organizations, students who I can see signs that they’re going to
play leadership roles,” Mohamed said Monday in a phone interview. “I
didn’t see any of those signs with him.”
Morsi didn’t have a beard at the time and, unlike other Muslim
students at the school, was not known to be a vocal critic of
American values. That’s why, Mohamed said, he was shocked when he
learned of Morsi becoming a senior leader in the Brotherhood.
“As an Egyptian, I hope that he succeeds in his mission,” Mohamed
said. “His mission is very difficult. He has to unite the people. The
vote was very close. The country is divided. I hope he forgets about
his affiliation and thinks about the greater good.” Staff writer Joby
Warrick in Washington contributed to this report. (© 2010 The
Washington Post Company 06/26/12)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY