Time to Admit the U.S. Can't Control Egypt's Leaders

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Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi refusal to condemn the anti-U.S. protests is a hard lesson on the new Egypt.

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Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi talks with the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, at the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo in August. (Reuters)

Last week after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, American officials, political candidates, and pundits were asking, "Where is Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi?  How come he hasn't made a strong statement about the attacks on our embassy? Why has he been so elusive?"  After a couple of days, Morsi did release a statement, but it was equivocal at best, falling well short of what Washington and the policy community deemed necessary. Yet from Morsi's perspective it was the politically rational thing to do.* Indeed, there are no easy answers to this question except to say:  given what is at stake in Egypt broadly and, in particular, for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian president was never going to meet Washington's expectations to denounce the protests in the way that satisfied Americans.

I am not sure whether these expectations are a function of a blind spot because the United States is the big kid on the block or because of an unacknowledged neocolonial strain that permeates the American foreign policy establishment (to wit, the oft used "We must get Egypt right," circa March 2011). I hope it is the former, but I fear it is the latter.  Either way, Americans consistently fail to recognize that Arabs have their own politics and have the ability to calculate their own interests independently of what Washington demands.  As a result, whenever a crisis erupts that presents Egyptian leaders with a choice of kowtowing to Washington or protecting their political position at home, domestic politics will win virtually every time.  There continues to be an odd cognitive dissonance affecting much of Washington when it comes to Egypt:  There is recognition of the major changes that have occurred since February 2011, but there is a desire to do business pretty much as usual.  The problem is that business pretty much as usual was based on a deal with authoritarians who agreed to carry Washington's water in exchange for political support, diplomatic recognition, and aid.  That deal greatly narrowed the constituencies that Mubarak and Sadat before him had to please.

Morsi, in contrast to his predecessors, has a more complex and multi-layered challenge to ensuring and maintaining domestic political support.  To be sure, the Brothers had a significant edge over other groups in a more open political environment given their 80-year head start, credibility, and vision, all of which have helped Morsi to consolidate power. Still he is not master of the Egyptian political universe--at least, not yet.  He still has to deal with the remnants of the old order, legions of which make up Egypt's vast bureaucracy, a police/intelligence apparatus that distrusts the President and the Muslim Brotherhood, and a weak but dedicated opposition.  And even though Egypt's electoral outcomes (parliamentary and presidential) suggest that a lot of people like the Brotherhood's answers about how Egyptian government and society should look and function, they are not the only answers.

Indeed, since Mubarak's fall, the most dynamic part of the Egyptian political spectrum has been the Islamist one.  Lest anyone has forgotten, over the last 18 months, the sheikh of al Azhar, Ahmed el Tayyeb, has weighed in on debates concerning both important issues of the day and Egypt's future trajectory in forceful ways.  In response to the "Innocence of Muslims" and the attack on the U.S. embassy, Tayyeb called for an international ban on attacks on Islam. Salafis of varying stripes have also engaged in the debate about Egypt's future and the Nour Party, which represents part of Egypt's Salafist movement, is a potentially powerful political competitor to the Brothers' own Freedom and Justice Party.  The embassy protests were a response to the call of a Salafi preacher, Wesam Abdel Warith, for Egyptians to defend Islam.  Indeed, within the debate about the institutions of the Egyptian state, the best means to achieve social justice, and Egypt's place in the region, is a competition over who speaks for Islam.  This is fraught political territory for the Muslim Brothers because if they don't manage these debates and challenges correctly, they leave themselves open to the kind of ontological attacks that the Brotherhood leveled against Sadat and Mubarak.  It would not have been unreasonable for the Salafis to expose the Brothers as not Muslim enough and bad nationalists if Morsi had responded to the protests in the way that Washington demanded.

As I have written before, it is going to be some time before Egypt sorts itself out.  The Egyptian political arena is ideologically rich and thus highly contested, especially in a new, more open environment.  As a result, it is important for observers to understand Egyptian foreign policy from the "inside-out,"--in other words, foreigners need to be cognizant of the Egyptian president's domestic political imperatives and the complexities associated with navigating Egypt's political arena. It's banal to say that context matters, but Egypt is too important to react in a way that puts Morsi in a corner by making demands he cannot possibly meet.


* - This line originally stated that President Morsi had called for protests on September 14, when in fact the Muslim Brotherhood had done so. We regret the error.

This article also appears at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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