Mohammed Mursi

Egyptian leader Mursi faces difficult balancing act with West

New Islamist leader must convince wary audience at home that he is not a US ally puppet, while maintaining his credibility on the international stage to ensure billions in aid continue to flow, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2012, 4:32am


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Amid growing anti-US protests, Egypt's new Islamist President Mohammed Mursi is walking a delicate tightrope, keen not to be seen as too pro-American by his people while keeping billions of dollars flowing from the West, analysts say.

US President Barack Obama acknowledged late on Wednesday that ties with the new Egypt were a "work in progress" and seemed to signal a review of its status, by saying Cairo could neither be considered an ally nor an enemy.

But the White House moved on Thursday to downplay any idea of a policy shift, saying "ally is a legal term" and stressing "Egypt is a long-standing and close partner of the United States".

Washington, which pumps US$1.3 billion in military aid to Cairo every year and is reported to be weighing a deal to relieve US$1 billion worth of debt, is keeping a watchful eye on Egypt's new rulers.

A former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mursi became Egypt's first democratically elected president in June after the fall of the nation's autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, a long-time US supporter, in 2011.

"The administration is giving him a lot of space to figure out where he wants to be and where he wants Egypt to be," former US ambassador to Cairo Daniel Kurtzer said.

"Mubarak, when he was president, thrived on the idea that he was a strategic ally. I think Mursi would see that kind of embrace as constraining him. I think the administration is sensitive to that."

But Kurtzer argued there needed to be "a show of determination" by the Egyptian leader that demonstrations, which are part of a democratic society, would not be allowed to turn violent and US embassies would be protected.

Many Egyptians also remain wary of Mursi, who was very narrowly elected, and there were vocal protests during a visit in July by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by crowds alleging their revolution had been "stolen".

International capitals are also watching to see what kind of democracy will evolve under the new leadership.

"There's no question that his colleagues within the Brotherhood have certain expectations with respect to where Mursi will lead the country in terms of religious legislation and religious practice," Kurtzer said.

"How far he goes, and what he does, and what choices he makes will largely determine the relationship he has not only with the United States but with the West in general."

On Thursday, EU leaders offered Egypt more than a €1 billion (HK$10.01 billion) in aid and better trade as Mursi arrived in Brussels on his first visit to Europe.

He appealed for calm after two days of protests at the US embassy in Cairo triggered by an amateur anti-Islam film made in the United States. He condemned an attack on a US mission in Libya in which the American ambassador and three other diplomatic staff were killed.

But there has been concern he failed to immediately apologise after protestors on Tuesday scaled the Cairo building's walls and tore down the US flag.

"We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our Prophet. I condemn and oppose all who … insult our Prophet," Mursi said on Thursday.

"[But] it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad."

Mursi is "trying to walk a very difficult line in trying to reposition himself, that he's not Mubarak, he's not seen to be too pro-American," said Joshua Landis, director of the Centre of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

"Yet at the same time he needs to maintain the peace with Israel and to continue the lavish military aid that America showers on Egypt," he said.

Obama acknowledged the US expected Cairo to be "responsive to our insistence that our embassy is protected, our personnel is protected.

"And if they take actions that indicate they're not taking those responsibilities, as all other countries do where we have embassies, I think that's going to be a real big problem."

Armoured vehicles were deployed around the US embassy in Cairo on Thursday.