Egypt’s President Morsi is discovering just how expensive was his decidedly mixed response to last week’s assault on the U.S. embassy in Cairo–it took the new leader more than 48 hours to condemn the attacks. Yesterday, U.S. officials announced that talks underway to forgive approximately $1 billion in debt and to facilitate other economic aid to Egypt have been suspended–and will likely not resume until after the U.S. election in November.
After initially encouraging through Twitter and other social media an inflammatory “Friday of rage” to demonstrate against the anti-Islamic video, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party took a more conciliatory tone. President Obama’s late-night phone call to President Morsi last Wednesday, demanding that the Egyptian government lower the tensions, no doubt had some effect. Obama’s earlier statement in an interview that Egypt was not necessarily an “ally” of the United States perhaps also concentrated some minds in Cairo. The State Department jumped into the fray too–chastising the Brotherhood’s doublespeak after it served up a sympathetic message of support on its English-language Twitter feed. “Thanks,” replied the U.S. embassy in Cairo via Twitter, “By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”
Yes, Morsi was under enormous domestic pressure to respond to Egyptian public sentiment that was outraged by the offensive video. But by not condemning the violence sooner, and in effect fanning the flames for several days, he put at risk important economic assistance from the West–not only the $1 billion debt relief from the U.S., but also a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF that is under negotiation. The IMF loan is important not only to address Egypt’s immediate liquidity problems but also to unlock other sources of financing. The ongoing demonstrations also certainly didn’t help Morsi’s campaign to attract critical tourist business back to Egypt. The fact that the anti-American protests coincided with the largest trade delegation from the U.S. ever to visit Egypt (or the rest of the Arab world, for that matter) provided particularly bad optics for a government that is trying to position itself as pro-business.
In short, the events of the past week taught Morsi the dangers of political prevarication. It’s almost impossible to ride the populist tiger without backlash. Given Egyptians’ long-pent up frustrations and anger toward a United States that backed the authoritarian government of Mubarak for so many decades, further instances of anti-American rage are all but inevitable. Morsi’s leadership challenge is to assuage that rage without alienating the U.S. and other Western powers. Otherwise he will find it far more difficult to meet economic expectations that will remain long after the protests have dissipated.