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

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.

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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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