A U.S. embassy statement condemning an American film that had infuriated Egyptians reveals the challenging, and sometimes competing, expectations placed on diplomats to the Middle East.
Egyptian protesters tear the U.S. flag outside the embassy compound. (Reuters)
When someone in the U.S. embassy building in Cairo drafted up a statement on Tuesday condemning an obscure independent film that had sparked Egypt's latest controversy-of-the-moment, it's hard to imagine that he or she or they could have possible foreseen the memo's eventual impact back in America.
Angry Egyptians, offended by the film that seems designed to do just that, had not yet climbed the embassy compound's walls and pulled down the flag. Libyan extremists had not yet attacked a consulate in Benghazi, killing four Americans. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney had not yet said of the embassy statement, "It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus had not yet tweeted, "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic." The White House had not yet disavowed the embassy statement as "not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government."
When the American diplomat or diplomats sat down to write a statement announcing that the embassy "condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims" and that "we firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others," it was just another day in Cairo. An angry public to calm, malignant rumors to correct, American interests to advance and American ideals to protect.
There are some contradictions built into an embassy's job description. However the U.S. embassy to Egypt performed on Tuesday in balancing its sometimes-competing missions, Tuesday's statement and the controversy it provoked back in the U.S. are a reminder of those contradictions and the difficulty of navigating them.
From an American perspective, it was immediately clear that the offending film, Innocence of Muslims, represented only the deranged views of its still-mysterious hobbyist producers. It is also immediately clear that one cost of free speech is that you will sometimes be offended. But, in the Egyptian context, this might not have been quite so obvious. "People [in the Arab world] commonly believe that whatever happens in the American media ... inevitably the American government is involved," American University professor and former Pakistani ambassador Akbar Ahmed said on NPR this morning, explaining that, in countries such as Egypt, often a movie can't get made without the government's approval. This may explain some Egyptians' apparent belief that the U.S. government approved of the film, which may in turn explain the embassy's desire to clarify that they certainly do not.
Could the embassy have more clearly articulated the filmmakers' free speech, using the controversy as an opportunity to impress American free speech values upon Egyptians? Certainly. It's worth keeping in mind, though, that this might have risked obscuring the embassy's apparent effort to tamp down the anti-American fervor that the film had sparked, by highlighting perceived differences between Egyptians and Americans rather than their shared values of religious tolerance. On the one hand, free speech and tolerance could clearly use some promotion in the Middle East. On the other, the U.S. has a deep and important political and military relationship with the increasingly democratic Egyptian government, and protecting those American interests might mean striving to ease anti-American sentiment in the country.
Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell, who has deep experience in Cairo, articulated the "enormous difficulty" of conducting diplomacy in that country and in the region:
For me, the embassy assaults are a sobering reminder not only of the deep anger and dysfunction that plagues the broader Middle East, but of the enormous difficulty the United States has in dealing with this part of the world. The level of distrust and fury toward America is not the sort of thing you heal with a speech or two. And to make matters worse, there will always be groups that exploit things that have no connection whatsoever to U.S. government policy, like this anti-Islamic film.
I don't have an answer as to whether or not the U.S. embassy in Cairo took the best possible path in navigating its competing missions. The fact that the White House publicly disavowed the statement, and that the embassy later deleted some of its more defensive tweets, suggests that not everyone in the administration thinks they did. Still, however they performed, this incident is not the first time that American diplomats have faced such challenges in a part of the world where anti-Americanism runs high and U.S. interests need all the protection they can get.
In early 2006, as provocative cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed sparked protests across the Muslim world, the Bush administration called them "offensive" and "unacceptable." Just today, a spokesperson for the Israeli foreign minister, responding to reports that the Innocence of Muslims filmmaker might be Israeli-American, called him "a complete loose cannon and an unspeakable idiot." Israel, perhaps even more than the U.S., relies on a solid relationship with Egypt, and seems to have decided that this is not an ideal opportunity to lecture Egyptians about tolerating free speech.
Still, there are more than just Egyptian popular attitudes at stake here. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi still hasn't issued an apology for or condemnation of the attack on the U.S. embassy, though the Libyan government has done both. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is planning more protests. In Washington, this is cause for significant concern about Morsi's priorities and the Brotherhood's politics. In the embassy compound in Cairo, these are problems to work through. The diplomats there don't get to decide American policy, they execute it; they don't get to choose whether Morsi and the Brotherhood are American allies, they're tasked with, among other things, keeping it that way.
Whoever wrote the memo yesterday condemning Innocence of Muslims had an enormously difficult, and sometimes contradictory, set of objectives to accomplish on behalf of the United States. Promote America's image in Egypt, but also promote American ideas about the bounds of free speech that might offend many Egyptians. Further American interests as well as American ideals. Approach Egypt as it is, but help guide the country to what it could become. Represent the United States and its interests, but use language that might make sense in an Egyptian context that can be quite different than, for example, an American. Speak to Egyptian citizens as well as Egyptian leaders, but remember that there's an election going on back home.
We can debate the embassy's effectiveness at executing these missions, and in balancing these competing goals, in yesterday's admittedly odd statement. But diplomacy is not always an easy thing, especially across societies with such different histories and norms, and at a time of particular tension, and it's worth keeping that in mind.
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.