Mohamed Morsi struck a pose that hovered between the dignified and uncomfortable as he spoke in the sprawling headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels on Thursday. Egypt's president was seeking a €1-billion loan he hoped would be a lifeline for his country's ailing economy. Unfortunately, the issue in the spotlight was the attack on the US embassy in Cairo two days earlier.
Until then Morsi had said only that he was ordering Egypt's foreign ministry to sue the US makers of the film Innocence of Muslims — the tacky, low-budget 14-minute trailer that triggered protests across the Arab and Islamic worlds and provided cover for a pre-planned armed assault that killed the US ambassador to neighbouring Libya.
Images of the storming of the fortress-like embassy had been broadcast around the globe. "We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet," Morsi finally responded in the Brussels press centre. "But it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad."
This belated and carefully crafted message was delivered after what the New York Times described as a "blunt" 20-minute phone conversation with Barack Obama. "The president has to balance between his domestic alliances with ultraconservative Islamists and Egypt's relations with the US on the foreign affairs front," observed analyst Khalil al-Anani. It is, as this episode has shown, a delicate high-wire act.
Troubling questions are in the air. Can the Arab world's most populous country, now ruled by an Islamist president, remain on good terms with the US if anti-American sentiment is so strong? What about vitally needed tourism and foreign investment? Is the entire Arab spring a failure? Is Morsi, as conservative American critics splutter, "a new Khomeini" — a revolutionary firebrand who will send baying mobs to besiege US embassies?
Morsi was sworn in in July after winning — by a small margin — a free election that gave Egyptians their first real choice of a leader, as Cairenes joke, in 7 000 years. It was a triumph not just for democracy but also for the Muslim Brotherhood, banned since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. Morsi saw off a former general, Ahmed Shafiq, who was seen as a quintessential felool (remnant) of the old regime.
The contest could hardly have been more polarised. And Morsi was not an appealing figure. The original candidate of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party was Khairat al-Shater, a charismatic businessman who spent years in Hosni Mubarak's prisons and was disqualified on a technicality. Morsi, an engineer, was a backroom operator. Enemies scorned him as "spare" — and underlined the point by waving tyres at his carefully orchestrated rallies. Journalists groaned at his dreary, quote-free speeches.
In the end, though, the Brotherhood's well-oiled machine mattered more than Morsi's underwhelming personality. And even critics concede that he has proved surprisingly deft, cementing his leadership while acquiring, on paper at least, greater powers than any of his predecessors — and this with Parliament suspended and a new constitution yet to be written. The Morsi Meter, established to monitor his performance in his first 100 days, currently gives him an approval rating of 47%.
In August he pulled off a spectacular coup, revoking the powers of the generals who had dominated Egypt since forcing Mubarak out. Commentators called it Morsi's "night of power" — an unmistakable reference to the Qur'an.
Victory without confrontation
"The army was trying to contain Morsi but he outmanoeuvred them step by step," reflected Abdullah Hamouda, an independent journalist. "He made peace with the civil authority in order to confront the military." It was a swift victory in a struggle most Egyptians had assumed would take years. "The genius of it was doing it without having a confrontation," mused a secular intellectual who like many others mistrusts the Brotherhood but admits to grudging admiration for the president. "It was done in a very sophisticated way that is in line with the temperament of the Egyptian people."
Next Morsi played a blinder on the international stage, flying to Tehran to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit despite objections from the US and Israel. Standing alongside Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he lambasted the "oppressive regime" of Syria's Bashar al-Assad — Iran's close ally. Morsi spoke with all the moral authority of the Egyptian revolution. And there was a pleasing echo of the feisty independence of the Nasser era. "If it displeases the Americans, then so be it," shrugged one official. "This is the new Egypt."
In line with this new assertiveness Cairo is now trying to put together a "contact group" for Syria — comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey — to see if the Middle East can forge a solution that has eluded the divided UN Security Council.
On the negative side, it is clear that the Cairo embassy affair has been damaging to relations with the US. Obama, under fire from Republican Mitt Romney, described Egypt as not an ally but not an enemy — an alarmingly tepid characterisation from the man who provides it with $2-billion in annual aid, the price, principally, of maintaining the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Egyptian diplomats dismiss this as a slip of the presidential tongue in the heat of the moment. It didn't sound like a gaffe.
Obama's critics will doubtless relish the opportunities for attack when Morsi visits Washington soon. "Morsi is taking a page from the 1979 Khomeini playbook, fabricating an international incident to mobilise religious passions as a weapon for his political grouping against more secular blocs in Egyptian society — the Egyptian military very much included," thundered the right-wing commentator David Frum.
Details of the embassy incident remain murky. But it was less spontaneous than at first appeared. As early as August 30 al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, a radical Islamist group with a terrorist past, scheduled a demonstration for 11 September — with its obvious resonance — and then used the Innocence of Muslims film to mobilise supporters.
It is also clear that a smallish crowd was able to assault one of the most heavily guarded buildings in Cairo and that security was lax. "The Brotherhood and the [Salafi] Noor party and the state press and al-Azhar [the official Islamic University] all played some role in turning this into an issue in the first place," said Elijah Zarwan of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "They seemed to be going for the low-hanging fruit of religious and nationalist jingoism. Now they are having second thoughts. The government reaction is to put the genie back in the bottle. Maybe it has learned its lesson."
The novelty here is accountability to voters. Mubarak could and did ignore popular opinion and sent in the riot police or plain clothes thugs to crack heads. Morsi's dilemma is the classic one of an elected politician torn between his core constituency and allies and larger issues of national interest.
Elected, in his own reassuring words, as "president of all Egyptians", he fought to overcome opposition to a $4.8-billion loan package with the IMF, which will mean painful public sector and subsidy cuts. Islamists and leftists are similarly united in loathing the peace treaty Anwar Sadat signed with the country many still call "the Zionist enemy". But Morsi pledged to respect all Egypt's international obligations.
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Centre says he now detects tensions between the Brotherhood and the presidency. "The events of the last few days have … made clear that Morsi's office and the MB are not one and the same," he commented. Morsi's long-delayed statement tried to "offer everybody a little something", said the political scientist Michael Wahid Hanna. "But the Brotherhood are not in opposition any more. They run the country now."
Egyptians are watching Morsi on other fronts. Liberals disliked the vengeful Qur'anic language he used when jihadis killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai — a stark reminder of the perennial dangers emanating from the Palestinians, Israel and the besieged Gaza Strip. Many are still waiting for the Christian and female vice-presidents Morsi promised to appoint to underline inclusivity — and for an end to the muzzling of critical media, with its echoes of the bad old days. The president's balancing act over Egypt's turbulent and shifting landscape will face more challenges — and doubtless more unpleasant surprises. – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012