Just as Mubarak played up the controversy over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006 in order to improve his domestic standing, so Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's government has stoked popular outrage now. But the flames he has fanned will make life hotter for him as well as the United States.
Morsi's sacking of Egypt's top military officials follows a familiar playbook. Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat made similar moves to consolidate control when they first came to power. And like Nasser and Sadat's gambits, Morsi's will likely lead to a foreign policy realignment.
Obama giving his June 2009 speech in Cairo, as seen on televisions in Tel Aviv. (Gil Cohen Magen / Courtesy Reuters)
At first glance, the political situation in Egypt today looks bleak: The liberal revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have been marginalized, the Coptic minority is under threat, and uncertainty clouds the future of the three-decade-old peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Last week's protests in Cairo -- set against the backdrop of spreading anti-American unrest in the region -- have stirred anxieties in Washington. Republican leaders, backed by conservative commentators, argue that if President Barack Obama had only done things differently over the past few years, the United States would be in a far better position to secure its interests in Egypt. Speaking about Egypt, Libya, and Yemen in the wake of last week's tragic events, Richard Williamson, a high-level foreign policy adviser to the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, told The Washington Post: "The respect for America has gone down, there's not a sense of American resolve, and we can't even protect sovereign American property." Williamson went on to summarize Obama's handling of relations with Cairo in two words: "amateur hour."
But such criticisms overstate both the dangers of Egypt's new Islamist government as well as Washington's ability to shape events in the Middle East. In fact, whether by luck, sound judgment, or a combination of the two, Obama has deftly handled the U.S. response to the Egyptian revolution. The most recent evidence: a $1 billion debt forgiveness package for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's government, even though its delivery might now be delayed due to the recent protests. And that comes alongside a $3 billion aid deal from the International Monetary Fund that the White House helped to assemble. Setting aside the dire headlines about protests for a moment, these financial moves establish a solid foundation for U.S.-Egypt relations far into the future...