On the final day that Egyptian authorities courted 100 senior business executives exploring investment opportunities, a the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, defacing American flags, painting “bin Laden” on a gate and occupying the grounds for hours. The crowd was angered by a U.S.-produced video mocking the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi focused his ire on the makers of the video, asking U.S. officials to prosecute them. It took a full day for Mursi to say his government was committed to protecting foreign missions, and that happened only after President Barack Obama described Egypt, which is technically a major non-NATO ally, as neither an ally nor an enemy of the U.S.
Compare that reaction with that of the government in Libya, which responded with alacrity following an attack hours later on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, in which four U.S. diplomats, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed. Its leaders pledged to work with the U.S. to track down the killers. The president of Libya’s National Congress apologized to the U.S., “if not the whole world,” for the atrocity.
Mursi had an opportunity, at the start of events, to dampen the risk of trouble spreading. Egypt, after all, aspires to be the political leader of the Middle East. Instead, his too-little, too-late responses left the ground fertile for further unrest, which in fact broke out in Tunisia and in Yemen, where protesters breached the U.S. embassy’s security perimeter. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mursi emerged, upped the ante, announcing additional nationwide protests to follow Friday prayers Sept. 14.
Mursi is no longer a leader of a religious movement. As the president of Egypt, he’s a statesman, with responsibilities that require him to go beyond pandering to his supporters. They include protecting and respecting as sacrosanct diplomatic missions in Egypt, which have suffered four attacks over the past year.
His job also requires him to ensure the prosperity of his people. Egypt won’t rise above its current economic travails -- crippling unemployment, sputtering growth, rapidly depleting reserves -- without significant help from abroad. The U.S. alone supplies Egypt $1.5 billion in annual assistance, has pledged $1 billion in debt forgiveness and has supported a proposed $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. This is not the kind of largesse the U.S. government extends to a country that isn’t truly an ally. Nor are those 100 business execs likely to return home eager to invest in Egyptian enterprises given the callousness of the country’s response to the week’s events.
Mursi is still new in a job he was scarcely prepared for, and he’s shown that he’s capable of taking bold stands -- for instance when he visited Tehran for the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement and blasted Syria for the war it is waging against its people. He has time to correct course, and needs to do so, beginning with a clear condemnation of the violence and a declared willingness to stop and punish further such attacks.
Egyptians make the argument that though the Muslim Brotherhood is now in charge, Egypt is not the new Iran. A fifth, sixth or seventh embassy transgression could make that case hard to swallow.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org.