CAIRO -- Mohammed Morsi’s first visit Monday to the United States as the president of Egypt offers a timely example of all the ways relations between the countries have changed since Egypt held its first democratic election three months ago.
Where former Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat were celebrated as close U.S. allies and keystones to Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, Morsi isn’t even meeting one on one with President Barack Obama. Where U.S. congressmen once lined up to meet with Egypt’s civilian and military leaders, they’re now discussing cutting off $1.3 billion in annual military aid. And where U.S.-Egyptian relations once were celebrated as one of America’s greatest diplomatic success stories, the relationship is now uncertain.
Morsi is scheduled to speak before the United Nations General Assembly. His only meeting with top U.S. officials will be at the annual meeting of former President Bill Clinton’s foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, which Obama also is attending.
Even before thousands of Egyptians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, tearing down and destroying an American flag over an anti-Islam YouTube video, the signs that U.S.-Egyptian relations have cooled were frequent. Last month, Morsi fired the two military men who’d been the pillars of U.S.-Egyptian military relations and Egyptian-Israeli relations, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi and Army Chief of Staff Sami Anan.
Around the same time, Egypt accepted $2 billion in aid from Qatar, making that Persian Gulf nation the biggest donor to its government, surpassing the United States. Morsi’s first state visits as president were to China and Iran, nations that seek to challenge America’s superiority in the region.
Perhaps most telling, Morsi and his administration have signaled a new kind of relationship, based on “mutual interests.” His foreign minister said Egypt had regained its free will in the relationship, according to a local newspaper report.
In response to questions about why Morsi isn’t meeting with Obama one on one, one Morsi official told a newspaper here Thursday that the Egyptian leader is “very busy” and will meet with Obama later this year. One hard-line Islamist group called on Morsi to cancel the visit altogether.
Obama himself referred to the changing relationship last week in a television interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo, saying of Egypt, "I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy."
For Egyptians, one of the unspoken goals of the Arab Spring was for a government that wasn’t as dependent on the United States. Many Egyptians think they lived under U.S.-backed despots who couldn’t have survived as long as they did without that support.
That belief is one of the factors that underlay the Sept. 11 riot at the U.S. Embassy, where demonstrators allegedly were enraged by the anti-Islam video. That rationale seemed questionable Friday in light of the muted reaction to cartoons published in France that insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Police outside the French Embassy on Friday easily outnumbered the small number of protesters, who demonstrated peacefully for a few hours and then went home.
“There is still a reservoir of popular anger against the United States,” said Ashraf el Sherif, a political science lecturer at the American University in Cairo.
When protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy, Morsi, an Islamist and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, remained silent for more than 36 hours. “He had to answer to the Muslim people first,” said Mahmoud Shoukry, secretary council of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs and a former ambassador to Syria and Italy. “He had to absorb the angry feeling of the Egyptian people.”
Morsi responded to the attack only after a stern phone call from Obama. And Morsi never outright condemned the assault, instead calling for a peaceful demonstration in defense of the prophet. He then added more police around the compound, weeks after a court ruling forced the government to tear down army checkpoints.
What sustains the relationship, Egyptian experts and former diplomats say, is that neither side has a better alternative. Egypt needs the U.S. to maintain its aid package, to help secure loans from the International Monetary Fund and to keep its status as the leading country of the Arab world. And while U.S. officials may not be happy with Morsi, he’s better than the alternative: hard-line Islamists who also are vying to be the voice of the new Egypt.
“The relationship is cold but it is not going to stay like that,” Shoukry said. “As far as Egypt is concerned, the relationship is important for its own agenda.”
The images of the past week, however unsettling to Americans, aren’t enough to break that mutual dependence, Sherif said.
“Pragmatic politics will prevail at the end of the day,” he said.