Mursi in New York
The visit to the UN of Egypt's first democratically elected president was overshadowed this week by indications that US-Egyptian relations are turning sour, Ezzat Ibrahim reports from New York
President Mohamed Mursi arrived back to Cairo early this morning after a three-day visit to New York City where, at the UN General Assembly, he delivered a speech on behalf of Egypt -- the first such address by a democratically elected Egyptian head of state.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the only US senior official to meet with President Mursi during his visit, as US President Barack Obama reportedly apologised for not having a private meeting with Mursi before the US presidential elections in November. According to an Egyptian official, the Clinton meeting had happened upon the request of the latter.
The focus point of meeting was the circumstances around the attack on the US embassy in Cairo following the surfacing of a film that is widely deemed insulting to Islam and its prophet.
"They [the Egyptians] affirmed that embassy security is their duty, it's their responsibility, and they take it quite seriously," a senior State Department official said following the meeting.
"They discussed both what was necessary on the security side as well as the dialogue that we all need to have about tolerance," the official added.
The discussion also touched on the prospective IMF loan, budget reform, and US assistance and commitments the president and secretary of state have made to Egypt.
In his speech at the "Clinton Initiative" meeting Tuesday, Mursi asked the business community in New York and around the world to assist Egypt in a critical stage. "We need assistance -- investment, technology, international cooperation," he said.
The anti-Islam movie and violent protests against US diplomatic missions across North Africa left a deep impact on Mursi's visit. On more than one occasion, the president reaffirmed his government's position against absolute freedom of expression when it insults sacred beliefs and prophets. "Freedom of expression comes with responsibilities, especially when it bears serious implications for peace," he told the Clinton Initiative audience.
In a recent interview following the attacks on US embassies, President Obama said he considered Egypt's Islamist government neither an ally nor an enemy to the United States. When the famous American anchor Charlie Rose asked Mursi to describe the relationship between Egypt and the US he simply repeated what Obama had said, adding: "We can be good friends."
The same evening, Clinton met Mursi. A US diplomat declined suggestions that Obama's comment reflected deeper uncertainties in US-Egyptian relations. "We've moved past that," the official said.
Yet, a New York based geopolitical analysis group, Stratfor Global Intelligence, suggests that relations are souring, based on recent rhetoric. "At stake are not only US-Egyptian ties, but also Israeli national security and potentially a geopolitical shift that would affect the Middle East," Stratfor said.
Meanwhile, Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly contained a discreet message to the Egyptian government.
"The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt. It must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted 'Muslims, Christians, we are one'," Obama said. "The future must not belong to those who bully women. It must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons. The future must not belong to those corrupt few who steal a country's resources. It must be won by the students and entrepreneurs -- workers and business owners who seek a broader prosperity for all people. Those are the men and women that America stands with. Theirs is the vision we will support."
Hours before Obama's speech, a New York Times report reflected deep tensions in the administration: "Hard lessons the president had learned over almost two years of political turmoil in the Arab world: bold words and support for democratic aspirations are not enough to engender goodwill in this region, especially not when hampered by America's own national security interests."
Meanwhile, it is unclear what exactly Obama meant by insisting that the "future belongs to those in Tahrir Square who chanted 'Muslims, Christians, we are one'." Some analysts expect a shift in US policy that will strengthen US relations with moderate and liberal forces in the region. Fringes in the administration have spoken against close ties with Islamists as long as they refuse American values, asking the White House to build long-term relations with nascent liberal movements.
"It can be a paradigm shift," a former US diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly.
In the meantime, top Middle East experts have suggested that the US wait and see the reshaping of the Egyptian foreign policy. "It is going to be some time before Egypt sorts itself out," Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in The Atlantic.
Meanwhile, the US presidential elections left a real impact on President Mursi's visit, amid accusations levelled by Mitt Romney -- the Republican candidate -- that Obama has compromised US interests. Romney spoke at Clinton Initiative the same day as Mursi's encounter, saying many Americans are troubled by the developments in the Middle East.
"Syria has witnessed the killing of tens of thousands of people. The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack. And Iran is moving towards nuclear weapons capability. We feel that we are at the mercy of events, rather than shaping them," he said.