WASHINGTON (AP) — Egypt is on a "difficult path" to a peaceful democracy, the White House said Monday as months of lukewarm political support for the conservative Islamic government was in danger of backfiring after deadly weekend riots pushed Cairo to crack down on civil rights.
It was the latest strain on the stretched-thin detente between the Obama administration and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood following — a fault line that already has delayed $1 billion in U.S. aid to Cairo. Billions of additional dollars in international loans also have been shelved because of Egypt's instability.
Washington has worried since June — when Egyptian voters overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak and picked Morsi as its first democratically elected leader — that the Brotherhood ultimately would default to its anti-American and anti-Israel roots instead of taking a more moderate stance towards peace.
A spate of recent steps — from Brotherhood-led attacks on protesters, to vague protestations of women's freedoms in the nation's new constitution, to revelations of old comments by Morsi referring to Jews as "bloodsuckers" and "pigs" — have raised alarm among senior U.S. officials. Political unrest in Egypt peaked this weekend with clashes that left more than 50 people dead and forced Morsi to deploy military forces and impose a curfew as part of a month-long state of emergency in three Suez Canal provinces.
"We have engaged directly with the Egyptian government as they move forward on the difficult path towards greater democracy and rule of law, and we will continue to do so," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. "There needs to be a lasting solution to the conflict that we see in Egypt and it has to be a solution that adheres to the rights of all Egyptians.
"Obviously, this is not a lasting solution," Carney said.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo closed hours early on Monday, fearing that protests against Morsi and the Brotherhood could turn violent and endanger American diplomats who work a few miles from Tahrir Square, the base of Egypt's revolution in 2001. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials are "obviously watching how this moves forward," and urged Morsi's secular and liberal political opponents to agree to a national dialogue with the president to settle the burgeoning crisis.
"There are a lot of different views about how to take the country forward," Nuland said.
Egypt is the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, but its influence and affiliates have spread across the Mideast and into North Africa — where two recent terrorist attacks and a French assault on Islamist militants in Mali have presented Obama with a new front in the war against extremism for his second term.
The White House has little interest in picking a fight with the Brotherhood, which has grown in size and stature across the region since the Arab Spring revolts. The Brotherhood and similar Islamist movements are regarded warily by monarchies in Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. Its members are part of the opposition coalition seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. It has small followings in Qatar, Algeria, and a like-minded — although not officially affiliated — ally in Tunisia.
The Brotherhood describes itself as a non-violent social organization dedicated to instilling Islamic values in the society. In Egypt, the group was repressed by former regimes for decades and has struggled with adjusting to its new role leading the government. Its members, fearing a coup, are widely blamed with attacking anti-Morsi protesters outside the presidential palace in Cairo last month in clashes that left at least 10 people dead.
"This is the kind of group that will be a pain to deal with for the United States, but it's not al-Qaida; it's not a security threat," said Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University who has been researching Islamic movements for nearly a decade. "The biggest fear on the part of the (Obama) administration is a political breakdown in Egypt. They are worried that a collapse in the Egyptian state would be destabilizing on the region, and might allow the flow of arms and fighters among more radical movements in the region."
Since the Tahrir Square revolution, Washington has tried to help Egypt build a democratic state without appearing to tread on its sovereignty. Morsi won election last June with 51 percent of Egypt's vote, and has since offered words of moderation, brokered a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza and bore down on terrorist dens in the Sinai Peninsula.
Morsi's anti-Semitic comments, made in separate speeches in 2010 but which surfaced this month on Egyptian TV, also accused Obama of being a liar. They shocked U.S. officials who sprang to condemn them as counter-productive to American-supported peace efforts in the Mideast. But they surprised few people in Egypt, who have heard Brotherhood officials make similar statements for years.
Morsi initially struggled to respond to the U.S. backlash from the comments. His office issued a statement committing to uphold religious freedoms and tolerance, and condemning violence. It did little to soothe U.S. lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — who have balked at approving $1 billion in aid to Egypt that Obama promised in 2011 to help the new government settle an economic crisis that has drained the country's central bank and devalued the local currency in the revolution's aftermath.
"How would the American people feel about cutting money to education programs here and giving money to a government that is anti-Semitic?" Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding to foreign governments, said.
"I don't think the administration has any right to say they are going to grant this foreign aid because I think this Congress may very well condition it," Wolf said. "I think there are a lot of questions, and I don't think it's a given."
Part of the proposed $1 billion aid package depends on International Monetary Fund approval of its own $4.8 billion loan to Egypt. But that loan has stalled for months because of Egypt's instability. And despite its misgivings about Morsi, the White House still is pushing Congress for the funding, acknowledging that Egypt's downfall all but certainly would roil the already turbulent Mideast and North Africa.
Obama administration officials said Morsi's promises to abide by Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and continued security cooperation with Israel over the volatile Sinai Peninsula shows his willingness to be a reasonable partner. Morsi's work in November to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rules was "a good first step," the senior Obama administration official said.
But Washington remains wary of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, "who come from a very conservative viewpoint with issues that are very important to America," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Gillibrand was part of a delegation of U.S. lawmakers who met with Morsi in Cairo this month shortly after his 2010 statements surfaced. She stopped short of saying Morsi appeared chastened but described him as mindful of "how important America is to the viability of his presidency and the economy."
She said lawmakers want to see what actions he takes, "and we want to see if his words match those deeds and actions," Gillibrand said.
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