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Post-embassy attack, Egyptian President Morsi's silence deafening (+video)

President Mohamed Morsi, who still faces enormous skepticism as Egypt's first Islamist president, squandered an opportunity to reassure the international community that Egypt is stable.

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The cool tone from the US could also be seen in President Obama's call to Morsi yesterday. Compared to his seemingly warm chat with the Libyan leader the same day, his call to Morsi, described in a White House release, appeared curt. 

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Obama “underscored the importance of Egypt following through on its commitment to cooperate with the United States in securing U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel,” the release read. According to the White House, Morsi expressed his condolences about the deaths of four Americans in Libya, and promised to ensure the safety of the American embassy in Cairo, but did not apologize for allowing it to be breached.

The overrunning of the US embassy came at a particularly awkward time for Morsi – at the tail end of a trip to Egypt by a large delegation of American businessmen. The government hoped to portray Egypt as stable enough for desperately-needed investment. 

After positive meetings with the American businessmen, “all of that goodwill and confidence in their ability to be good stewards of the Egyptian state is going to be squandered,” says Hanna. “And I think it reflects a real ineptitude and a lack of fundamental understanding of being national leaders on the international stage.” 

To be sure, the Cairo embassy protest, which was nonviolent, was vastly different than the deadly attack on the consulate in Libya. Yet the sight of protesters raising a flag that has been used by Al Qaeda in the embassy compound, and of “Bin Laden” spray-painted on the embassy gate – after Egyptian police failed to keep protesters from overrunning the compound – is sure to stoke American anger.

Balancing interests

Like Morsi's statements, the responses by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, appeared aimed at a domestic audience rather than an international one. The FJP, which Morsi led until he ran for president and is the most powerful party in Egypt, released a statement yesterday that said the film crossed the bounds of free speech, and called for the prosecution of those who insult “heavenly religions.” The Muslim Brotherhood itself called for peaceful protests against the film tomorrow. 

Morsi’s silence is an indication of the public anger that this issue incites, as well as the pressure he faces from more conservative Islamists. Many Muslims consider any portrayal of the prophet Muhammad to be forbidden, so a film that mocks him and portrays him as an immoral buffoon is doubly offensive. Many in the region, where the freedom to insult religious symbols is not often recognized as a part of free expression, question why the US would allow such a film to be made and do not understand that such a movie could be made without the endorsement, or at least tacit approval, of the government. 

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