President Obama’s comments on Egypt conform to Michael Kinsley’s famous definition of a gaffe: when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. In an interview with Telemundo, Obama said:
I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy. They’re a new government that is trying to find its way. They were democratically elected. I think that we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident.”
As Alana notes, the administration immediately tried to walk back the president’s comment, with an NSC spokesman saying, “I think folks are reading way too much into this.” Hardly. When the president publicly questions whether a country like Egypt, which has been the second-largest recipient of American aid since the 1970s, is still an ally, it suggests that profound changes are afoot. As Obama suggested, it is still unclear where the new government led by Mohamed Morsi will end up–as an ally, an enemy or (more likely) somewhere in between, as a North African version of Pakistan.
The events of the past few days show just how hard it is to determine the future course of Egyptian policy: Morsi did not grant enough police protection to the U.S. embassy to prevent demonstrators from getting inside the grounds and he was halting and late in condemning the attack. His hesitancy stands in contrast to the prompt, full-throated condemnations from Libyan leaders–who are genuinely pro-American–of the attack which killed our ambassador in Benghazi. Morsi has been a little tougher in his language and actions today but only after a telephone conversation with Obama that had to be uncomfortable for both of them.
Like most politicians, Morsi appears to be triangulating between competing demands–in this case the demands of the U.S., which holds Egypt’s purse strings, and the demands of hard-line Salafists and Muslim Brothers. Morsi’s own views are unclear, perhaps conveniently cloaked for the time being. To make matters more complicated, it is unclear to what extent Morsi controls his own security forces even after having replaced many of the senior generals. There is even a conspiracy theory floating around that the security men might be tacitly cooperating with the Salafists to embarrass Morsi.
To understand how complicated and uncertain the situation is, it helps to recall Iran in 1979. After the shah was toppled, there was a power struggle between Islamists and secularists for control of the government. Radical students stormed the US Embassy and took its personnel hostage primarily to embarrass the moderates and force a crisis with the “Great Satan” that would allow the extremists around Ayatollah Khomeini to consolidate power. Something similar could be occurring in Egypt today. The U.S. must use what leverage it has–at this point, primarily financial–to shape the conduct of Egypt, but we must be aware that attacks on our embassy are primarily a manifestation of a local power struggle whose outcome we cannot dictate.