Olivier Knox, Yahoo! News, and Martha Raddatz, ABC News
The United States ramped up efforts to defuse Egypt’s deadly political crisis Friday, urging authorities there to release ousted President Mohammed Morsi from detention.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at her daily briefing that Washington agrees with Germany’s call for Morsi to be freed. "We do agree," she said, urging Egypt's security forces to stop "politically motivated arrests" and let go those caught up in such dragnets.
A senior U.S. official intimately involved in crafting American policy toward Egypt said getting Morsi released “is a huge, huge conundrum. There is the element of personal safety.”
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said that Deputy Secretary of State William Burns is heading to Cairo.
Burns wants to see some of the senior leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood released so that the group can be represented by someone other than the more extreme elements out in the streets, the official said.
“The problem with reconciliation is that you need someone to actually do it,” the official said. Most of those arrested are being held in Tora prison in Cairo, where former President Hosni Mubarak also is being held.
While stridently anti-U.S. demonstrations might have left American officials on the ground “radioactive” for some Egyptian political figures, the anger will ultimately “blow over” – and then the truly difficult work will begin, the official said.
The official provided a sobering assessment of the situation, saying that Americans don’t need to “freak out” about the crisis – but should worry about Egypt’s stability and be prepared for a long road to establishing a secular, democratic government there.
“This is really important, to get this right in Egypt. You can think of this sort of as this black hole sucking everything else in the Middle East into it,” the official said. “This just has to move forward in some kind of secular, modern society. It’s just going to take time. A lot of time.”
The official flatly dismissed suggestions that Ambassador Anne Patterson – a highly regarded career diplomat whose previous postings included Colombia and Pakistan – had somehow blindly embraced the Muslim Brotherhood.
“There was no naiveté about the Brotherhood,” the official said. “The idea that we sort of jumped into bed with them is, frankly, preposterous.”
American officials had long watched the Brotherhood and knew full well the scope of its Islamist tendencies. But with longtime strongman – and U.S. client – Mubarak toppled, “the priority was to get the military out of power.”
“The (Obama) administration was being just chewed up over that,” the official said. “The idea was to move as quickly as possible to civilian rule.” But “nobody had any illusions.”
Washington didn’t anoint the Brotherhood – it was the best-organized group, while more democratically inclined candidates self-destructed, “leaving the field open” to Morsi, the official explained.
Patterson also has taken heat for June 18 remarks seen in some quarters as disparaging of vast public demonstrations in opposition to Morsi.
"Some say that street action will produce better results than elections," Patterson said in a speech. "To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical."
The ambassador “probably should have phrased that better,” the official acknowledged.
The remarks have seemed to fuel anti-American sentiment in Egypt, notably at angry protests where some have waved signs with the diplomat’s face crossed out.
But it’s “ridiculous” to blame Patterson for that, said former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
“This is a tried and tested method for when you don’t want to look internally for how to fix your country – you look outside,” Vietor told Yahoo News. “The reality is that she (Patterson) is among the most smart, capable and tough diplomats we have.”
The ambassador herself believes the personal attacks are something that “comes with the territory,” the anonymous official said. “It’ll cause some problems with some political officials. We’re a bit radioactive right now – but it’ll blow over.”
The Obama administration hasn’t labeled Morsi’s ouster a coup, mostly because doing so would cut off America’s aid spigot – a key source of U.S. leverage in a strategically vital country, the official said.
Patterson wants to avoid a repeat of the U.S. disengagement with Pakistan, which was “nothing short of catastrophic,” the official said.
The Obama administration has been keeping a close eye on the crisis. Patterson talks to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s staff every day, and to Hagel himself two to three times a week via teleconference, the official said. Hagel has been a “hugely valuable” player because he has the ear of Egypt’s military.