CAIRO — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Saturday in a fresh push to strengthen relations as Egypt enters an unpredictable era in which an untested political Islam is clashing with a secular military over control of the nation.
Clinton’s talks with Morsi signaled a stark contrast to the days when U.S. diplomats visited President Hosni Mubarak, a stalwart American partner on countering terrorism and preserving Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. With Mubarak toppled by popular revolt last year, Washington is recalibrating its approach to a new Islamist president suspicious of American designs on the Middle East.
Clinton focused on calming the intensifying power struggle between Islamists — Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood — and the army, which seized control after Mubarak's ouster and is intent on retaining authority.
Clinton stressed support for Morsi — Egypt’s first freely elected president — and on Sunday is expected to meet Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the country’s top military commander.
"Democracy is hard,” Clinton told reporters after her meeting with Morsi. She added that “it requires dialogue and compromise and real politics. So we are encouraged and we want to be helpful, but we know that it is not for the United States to decide. It is for the Egyptian people to decide.”
The trip by Clinton to the Arab world’s most populous state comes as the Obama administration is trying to keep pace with months of regional upheaval. Egypt has been key to U.S. policy since the 1970s, but there is sharpening concern in Washington that new Islamist leaders in Tunisia and Egypt will gradually chart a different course even as they seek American aid and investment.
Egypt’s foreign policy is not likely to change dramatically in the short term. Cairo has promised to respect its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, although Morsi has suggested it may later be re-evaluated.
The battle between Morsi and the military has put the U.S.in a sensitive predicament that critics say is layered with irony and hypocrisy: Washington is urging that Morsi’s vision of political Islam respect civil liberties. At the same time, the U.S. is giving the Egyptian military, which has been subverting the nation’s transition to democracy, more than $1.3 billion in annual aid. The military wants to limit the reach of Islamists and has promised to guard the Israeli peace treaty.
The strategic relationship between Cairo and Washington has been further complicated by 16 American civil society workers accused of financial and other crimes over democracy-building programs in Egypt. The politically charged case, which began unfolding late last year, marked a low point in relations, especially after Egyptian authorities portrayed the Americans as spies.
The most recent Pew poll found that 76% of Egyptians have an unfavorable view of the Obama administration. Many Egyptians see America as either an interloper out to weaken Cairo or as a nation that promises democratic ideals until they interfere with U.S. national interests. The same poll found that 60% of Egyptians want the laws of their government to “strictly” follow the Koran, another indication of America’s thinning influence.
— Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi at the presidential palace in Cairo on Saturday. Credit: Brendan Smialowski / Associated Press