By Jamie Crawford
President Barack Obama offered a more cautious and nuanced take than in recent memory of the United States and Egyptian relationship following an assault on the American embassy in Cairo this week.
"I don't think that we consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," Obama said Wednesday in an interview with the Spanish language network Telemundo. "They are a new government that is trying to find its way," he said. "They were democratically elected."
Obama's comments were taken as a possible change in posture toward a country that has enjoyed billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic assistance since the signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 – the linchpin of security in the volatile region.
"I think that we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident," Obama went on to say in the interview. "I think it's still a work in progress. But certainly in this situation, what we're going to expect is that they are responsive to our assistance that our embassy is protected, that our personnel are protected."
Mohammed Morsy, Egypt's recently elected president had been criticized by many U.S. officials for taking 24 hours to issue a tepid condemnation of the attack on the American embassy. The fact that protestors were able to breach the walls without much resistance from Egyptian forces raised eyebrows as well.
In his remarks at the White House on Wednesday about the death of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Obama stressed the assistance of Libyan forces alongside their American counterparts in trying to put down the attack on the U.S. consulate.
"I think the president is basically right," Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) said during an interview Thursday on CNN's 'Starting Point.' While McCain said he did not want to get into "word parsings," the United States "should make every effort to have a good relationship" with Egypt he said. "But we also have the right to demand certain things."
Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was not pursuing a new policy toward the most populous country in the Arab world.
"The president, in diplomatic and legal terms, was speaking correctly." Carney said. "We do not have an alliance treaty with Egypt. Ally is a legal term of art. As I said, we do not have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt, like we do, for example, with our NATO allies. But as the president has said, Egypt is a long-standing and close partner of the United States."
But it was only in April when Carney referred to Egypt as an "important ally" of the United States during a briefing with reporters at the White House.
And when pressed about Obama's comments on Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland conceded the United States still referred to Egypt as a major non-NATO ally – a designation given to certain countries outside the Atlantic alliance that maintain a robust relationship with the U.S. military.
When asked whether Obama misspoke in his interview, Nuland declined to parse the president's words. "But as a matter of fact and practice, the word ally generally is used with a treaty ally which is a different matter than the fact that we have a very close and longstanding partnership with the government of Egypt and we are working together to support their democratic transition," Nuland said.
"I think it is a little shot across the bow," Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, said of Obama's comments in an interview with Security Clearance.
For Kurtzer, now a professor at Princeton University, Obama's comments were also a way of giving Morsy and his new government some "space to work through their own issues without crowding them. I think [Obama] is sensitive to the fact that Morsy has a lot of domestic issues to work through."
A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest political group that was banned under the government of former President Hosni Mubarak, Morsy came to the presidency after a run-off vote in which nearly fifty percent of the country voted for the opposing candidate who was more reflective of the former regime.
With the more hardline and orthodox Salafists garnering 25 percent of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections and the Egyptian military pushing to maintain the military alliance with the United States, Morsy has a disparate domestic constituency over which to govern.
But in addition to the peace treaty with Israel, the United States has a lot at stake in Egypt with a substantial strategic and intelligence relationship that has developed over the years. Questions and doubts over Morsy's response to the attack on the U.S. embassy are surely topics of discussion on Capitol Hill analysts say.
"Those doubts make it more difficult for the administration to justify U.S. aid to Egypt which has come under increased scrutiny in the last 18 months," Haim Malka, who is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Security Clearance. "Should blatant anti-American violence escalate in Egypt, it will deepen the uncertainty among many U.S. policymakers about the reliability of the Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt as a U.S. ally."
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN's 'Starting Point' on Thursday there is still a "question mark" over whether Egypt would remain a friend of the United States, or chart a different path.
Rogers said some of the rhetoric and actions that have come out of Egypt recently are for domestic politics and consumption, but nonetheless are "very disturbing and will lead to some serious trouble if we don't get this turned around."
For Kurtzer, Obama's comments about the relationship with Egypt were also emblematic of a signal he was trying to send to Morsy.
"I think the president wants Morsy to understand he has got to do even better even as he is kind of finding his way in his own presidency, he's got to do better to satisfy his friends," Kurtzer said.
Obama called Morsy Wednesday evening according to a readout from the White House as part of ongoing efforts to strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries. In the call, the White House said 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."