Inter Press Service
The wave of unrest in the Middle East caused by blasphemous depictions of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad last month – and events near the U.S. embassy in Cairo in particular – does not appear to have impaired Egypt’s longstanding ‘strategic partnership’ with Washington, say local analysts.
“Recent demonstrations and clashes near the U.S. embassy, and the reaction of Egypt’s new Islamist leadership to those events, has not led to a dramatic shift in Egypt-U.S. relations as had been initially feared,”Tarek Fahmi, political science professor at Cairo University told IPS.
“The relationship is a very deep one and has many dimensions: political, economic, military and otherwise,” Fahmi added. “It won’t be seriously impacted by embassy rallies or one-off statements by officials from either side.”
On Sep. 11, thousands of Egyptian protesters converged on the U.S. embassy in Cairo following the appearance online of a short film mocking Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. At one point, angry demonstrators breached the embassy grounds from which they tore down an American flag.
On the same day, the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed along with three colleagues during a similar anti-film demonstration outside the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
In Cairo, no members of the U.S. embassy staff were hurt – or threatened with harm – by protesters. Nevertheless, for the next three days, Egyptian demonstrators skirmished with security forces in the area around the embassy, adjacent to Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
On Sep. 12, in a move that many saw as a possible sign of shifting regional policy, U.S. President Barack Obama contentiously described Egypt as neither ally nor enemy.
“I don’t think that we would consider them (Egypt) an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy…We are going to have to see how they respond to this incident, how they respond to, for example, maintaining the peace treaty with Israel,” Obama said in a televised interview.
The following day, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – from which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi hails – issued a statement urging demonstrators to “exercise self-restraint”, and said protection of foreign diplomatic missions in Egypt is “both an Islamic and legal obligation.”
The party went on to voice “total rejection” of any aggression against the U.S. embassy or its staff, while strongly condemning the violence against U.S. diplomats in next door Libya.
While some U.S. officials criticised the FJP for issuing its statement a full two days after the protests began, leading party member Hamdi Hassan defended the move.
“From the outset, the government immediately issued orders forbidding violence against the U.S. embassy,” Hassan told IPS. “The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, also urged the government to pre-empt any aggression against diplomatic missions.”
He went on to blame the embassy clashes on “counter-revolutionary forces that continue to work behind the scenes in Egypt.” These forces, he asserted, “never miss an opportunity to turn peaceful rallies into violent confrontations with the aim of destabilising the country and causing problems for Egypt’s new democratically elected leadership.”
Counter-revolutionary elements, Hassan added, which he said include figures loyal to the former regime, “want to tarnish the image of Egypt’s revolution by making it look like an anti-Western phenomenon, which it is not.” He went on to point out that peaceful anti-film protesters had largely remained in Tahrir Square, “while those clashing with security forces outside the nearby embassy were incited to do so by as-yet-unidentified instigators.”
On Sep. 16, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil stated that several of those arrested during the clashes had confessed to having received money for attacking security forces deployed outside the embassy. Investigations aimed at identifying the instigators, he said, were “ongoing”.
Yet, despite U.S. criticism about the Egyptian government’s handling of the crisis, Fahmi says both countries remain keen to maintain solid bilateral relations.
“Regardless of the recent leadership change in Cairo, Washington still sees Egypt as its principle regional ally,” he said. “The U.S. does not want to see Egypt slip out of its sphere of influence. It would be an enormous blow to U.S. strategic interests in the region if Egypt were to ally itself with other international powers,such as Russia or China. ”
Egypt, for its part, Fahmi added, would be hard pressed to forsake its longstanding military-to-military cooperation with the U.S. – now more than three decades old – since the Egyptian armed forces remain “heavily dependent” on U.S. military hardware. In the event of a serious rupture in relations, he said, “Egypt would be forced to replace its entire military inventory.”
One week after the U.S. embassy debacle, following the publication of offensive depictions of Islam’s prophet in a popular French magazine, Egypt’s main Islamist parties – including the FJP – rejected calls to protest outside the French embassy in Cairo, opting instead to initiate legal action against the publishers of the offensive images.
“Islamist forces learned from their earlier mistake at the U.S. embassy,” said Hassan. “With the knowledge that counter-revolutionary elements are waiting for any opportunity to tarnish the image of Islam and Muslims in the eyes of the West, we’re currently studying alternative means of expressing our opposition besides street rallies and demonstrations.”
According to Fahmi, Washington and Cairo each drew important lessons from the episode.
“The Morsi administration learned that it must take a clear position vis-à-vis Israel and the (Egypt-Israel) Camp David peace treaty, because Egypt-U.S. relations are largely founded on the agreement,” he said.
While Morsi has frequently reiterated Egypt’s commitment to all international treaties to which it is signatory, he has also hinted that the terms of Camp David – which tightly restrict Egypt’s ability to make military deployments in the Sinai Peninsula – could eventually be put before a popular referendum.
Washington, for its part, Fahmi said, “has learned that if it wants to communicate with Egypt, it must deal with the new president, the government and a host of post-revolution political forces.” He added: “The time is over when the U.S. simply issued directives to (ousted president Hosni) Mubarak, who would implement them regardless of the Egyptian popular will.”
In a sign that relations had weathered the storm, Obama reportedly sent a letter to his Egyptian counterpart on Sep. 23 thanking him for securing the U.S. embassy and stressing his desire to maintain Washington’s “strategic partnership” with Cairo.
Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani are contributors to Inter Press Service.