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Why Obama is standing with Egypt's President Morsi

The Obama administration – as the US did for years with Hozni Mubarak — wants to separate President Mohammed Morsi's domestic political maneuvers from his role as a Middle East mediator. The US needs Morsi as a peace broker between Hamas and Israel. 

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Several U.S. officials said that Morsi's actions may not be as dangerous as they appear, citing the judiciary's ties to the old Mubarak government and its role in dissolving Egypt's first freely and fairly elected parliament earlier this year. They also praised him for opening a dialogue with opposition groups and judges about the changes.

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"When confronted with concerns about the decree that he issued, President Morsi entered into discussions with the judiciary, with other stakeholders in Egypt," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. "That's a far cry from an autocrat just saying, 'My way or the highway.'"

Still, Morsi's timing has put the White House in an awkward position, the decrees coming just a day after Obama aides praised the Egyptian president as a pragmatic and effective peacemaker.

Throughout the weeklong conflict between Israel and Hamas, White House officials emphasized the close coordination between Obama and Morsi. In the final stage of the negotiations, the two leaders spoke three times in 24 hours, with Obama working the phones with his Egyptian counterpart through the night.

They last spoke on Wednesday, shortly after the cease-fire was announced. The Egyptian leader didn't inform the American president about the coming decrees, officials said. The two haven't spoken since, though the U.S. has expressed its concerns through other channels, such as a Monday telephone call between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, also has had regular contact with Egyptian officials.

Administration officials insist Morsi's internal maneuvering hasn't dampened their assessment of him. They note his consistent support for the 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel, which remain deeply unpopular in Egypt and have been regularly questioned by leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that forms his base. They stress that Morsi has struck a note of inclusiveness and has emphasized in his discussions with American leaders that he wants to focus on Egypt's struggling economy.

Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about Egypt's leader in the midst of political instability there.

Joel Rubin, a former State Department official who worked on Mideast issues, warned against rushing to judgment on Morsi.

"The real strategic cornerstone for our relationship with Egypt has its grounding in the security relationship with Israel," he said. "And so far, that has been maintained."

It's unclear what Washington could do, anyhow, beyond prodding Morsi to respect the rule of law and advance democracy — which he may yet have full intention of doing. The U.S. tolerates imperfect partners from Afghanistan to Africa when it serves U.S. national interests, and Egypt's crucial geopolitical position between the rest of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula gives it significant leverage. The country has long been a bulwark of U.S. efforts to contain Iran's influence in the Arab world and to fight extremist groups such as al-Qaida.

And, after waiting for almost two years to find a partner it can rely on for regional stability, the U.S. has little incentive to sour relations now with Morsi. More political uncertainty in Egypt could imperil that country's democratic transition. And a power vacuum would cause deep concern for the U.S. and Israel, with far less cooperative political groups lying in wait.

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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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