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September 14, 2012

Morsi’s Balancing Act

Mohamed Morsi’s young presidency has many contradictions and tensions, which he had managed to navigate surprisingly well, until anti-American protests over a defamatory film about the Prophet Mohamed broke out in Cairo on September 11. Now Morsi seems to have been forced into a position where he and the Muslim Brotherhood, the religious movement that is his power base, will have to be clear about some issues on which they have found it convenient, until now, to remain ambiguous.

Events have a way of doing this, and it was inevitable that they would in such a volatile place as Egypt has been for the last two years.

Is Egypt’s new government going to continue the generally pro-Western policies of its predecessor, or is it going to strike out in new more antagonistic directions? President Morsi had been making reassuring statements about his commitment to the peace treaty with Israel and the continuation of Egypt’s long-standing partnership with the United States. However, his failure to apologize for the violent assault on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, in contrast to the apologies that were immediately forthcoming from the Libyan government after the much more serious attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, has been attracting negative attention in Washington, up to the level of the President. Morsi and the Brotherhood seem to want to have it both ways, a contradiction that was caught by the U.S. Embassy in a Twitter exchange with the Brotherhood website Ikhwanweb. The English language Twitter feed expressed condolences to the U.S. Embassy staff over the brutal killing of their colleagues in Benghazi. Embassy staff thanked them for the message but pointedly asked if they were also reading the Brotherhood’s Arabic Twitterfeed, which was simultaneously calling on Egyptians “to rise up to defend the Prophet” and for a million-man protest March against the film on Friday September 14.

Morsi personally sounds tone deaf, to Western ears, on the issue of the film. While it is to be expected that extremist rabble rousers should want to seize on an obscure You-tube posting and make a global conflagration out of it (see the Danish cartoons debacle), it is not the time for the democratically elected leader of one of America’s closest regional allies to play the same game. American leaders have rightly repudiated the content of the film, while also making clear that the U.S. government is not responsible for it and cannot, as a legal, practical or moral matter, do anything to stop it. Morsi should be able to see this distinction, and if he is going to be a leader who takes offense, and encourages his millions of people to do likewise every time some petty insult to Islam or the Prophet appears on the Internet, he will find his welcome in the West wearing thin very quickly. He will also find that without the support he has so far enjoyed from the West Egypt’s quest for international economic assistance, not to mention billions of dollars of aid from the U.S. Congress and investments from U.S. companies, will be that much more difficult to obtain.

Pragmatism and calculation have been a feature of the Brotherhood’s political maneuverings since the mass protests that brought down President Mubarak in February 2011. Sometimes, as when Morsi was in a closely contested run-off for the Presidency with former Mubarak era minister Ahmed Shafik, the Brotherhood represents the forces of the revolution, but at other times, when seeking accommodation with the military council that rule Egypt from February 2011 – July 2012, the Brotherhood is a force for stability and continuity, protective of the privileges of the military establishment. The protests over the film create stresses for this balancing act. Will Morsi and the Brotherhood pander to their more extreme rivals in the Islamist political camp and make common cause with the Salafi leaders who have been most outspoken in their opposition to the film, and thereby fanned the flames of public outrage, or will they risk tarnishing their Islamist credibility by taking the heat out of the protests? More importantly, if the Brotherhood is to be led by the Salafis on this issue, how should millions of non-Islamist Egyptians expect them to behave on issues relating to women’s rights, the rights of religious minorities and freedom of expression. Morsi’s decisions to date, and more especially his origins in the Brotherhood, have raised concerns in all these areas that will not be allayed by his conduct to date in the largely manufactured crisis over the film.

It seems that the protests in Egypt were initially sparked by a broadcast on a Saudi-financed satellite religious TV channel, Al-Nas TV. The notorious anit-Semitic, anti-Christian presenter, Khaled Abdallah broadcast extracts from the trailer, characterized them as an insult to the Prophet and blamed America and Coptic Christians. Such pro-Salafi extremist religious channels have been growing in popularity in Egypt since long before the downfall of Mubarak. It would be a mistake to suggest that this kind of anti-Western extremism is somehow a product of the Arab Spring. On the contrary, the Arab Spring finally released the popular forces that could eventually produce an effective counterweight to the forces of death and destruction that have consumed the region for decades.

President Morsi and the movement that formed him must now choose if they are going to be part of the forces for peaceful reconstruction, tolerance, democracy and human rights or are they going to pander to extremists, exploit the politics of fear and play the old games of blaming the West to distract for their own failures of governance?