After Benghazi Consulate Attack, What’s Next for U.S. Relations with Libya and Egypt?

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Ibrahim Alaguri—AP

A man looks at documents at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sept. 12, 2012. The graffiti reads, "no God but God," " God is great," and "Muhammad is the Prophet."

Outrage was the Obama Administration’s first reaction, Wednesday morning, to attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in Egypt and Libya — where four Americans were killed, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

“Today many Americans are asking, indeed I asked myself, how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate and a city we saved from destruction?” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday morning, referring to Benghazi, the city saved by NATO military intervention and where Stevens and his colleagues were killed at the U.S. Consulate. “It reflects just how complicated, indeed how confounding the world can be. This was an attack by a small and savage group, not the people or the government of Libya.”

Added President Obama minutes later, “There is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence, none… This attack will not break the bond between the United States and Libya… Make no mistake, justice will be done.”

(MORE: Slaying Highlights Libya’s Post-Gaddafi Struggles)

Noticeably absent from the Administration’s response, though, was much mention of Egypt. While the attack in Libya was more violent and involved loss of life, the situation there is also more diplomatically straightforward. The Libyan government was quick to apologize for the attack, and to reaffirm its alliance with the U.S. Egypt, however, is a major diplomatic headache.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has yet to apologize, or say anything much at all. Riot police stood idly by overnight as protesters spray-painted insults on the embassy’s walls. Popular anger over a anti-Muslim film trailer produced by an Israeli real estate developer is being fanned by more radical rivals to the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, in an awkward position. The Brotherhood’s youth wing has said it will take part in a planned protest on Friday but otherwise thegroup has been as silent as Morsi.

Morsi has prioritized getting the Egyptian economy on track. The attack forced a group of 100 American businessmen in Cairo for meetings on investing in Egypt to seek safety nearby. And it coincides with some lawmakers on Capitol Hill questioning whether Egyptian military should continue to receive $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid. In March, the U.S. renewed its commitment to another year of disbursements, despite Cairo’s failure to meet democratic goals. “The Parliament has said some things that are very chilling,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said at a budget hearing in March. “We’re not going to throw good money after bad.”

Egypt is also asking the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan, and needs at least $5 billion more, according the European Union estimates released Wednesday ahead of an anticipated Morsi visit to Brussels on Thursday to ask for aid.

(MORE: Egypt, Libya: Fundamentalisms Unleash Havoc)

Morsi has left no doubt of his independence from the U.S., ignoring calls to boycott the Non-Aligned Movement Conference in Tehran. At the same time, he told the Iranians that he would not be anyone’s pawn, and took them to task for supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Egypt’s centrality to regional security has had many watching uneasily as a Muslim Brotherhood president has taken and consolidated power, avowing both his independence from U.S. regional strategy but also his interest in stability and his intention to respect the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel. The embassy attack marks a serious test of Morsi’s ability to keep his political balance amid the competing pressures of staying onside with Western allies at the same time as fending off the challenge from radical salafists that have emerged as an increasingly important player on the Egyptian political spectrum, largely at the expense of the Brotherhood.

“If [Morsi] does not make a direct, firm statement condemning the violence and accompany that with stepped up security measures, it will cast a dark cloud over US-Egyptian relations,” says Robert Springborg, an Egypt specialist at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

Obama and Clinton’s silence on Egypt represents a responsible measured response, says Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The danger here is [that] a rush to judgment on the part of the U.S. could be in its own way as damaging as a rush to judgment over a movie where people relied on Egyptian TV excerpts and rumors and reacted,” Cordesman said. “We do not face an Islamic war on the U.S. What we do face is the spillover of the internal struggle for Islam. It’s one that’s going to go on for a long time and whatever we do weneed to have policies that address the situation that have long term cost benefits, and not trying simply to find someone to punish whether they’re guilty or not.” The danger, now, is that if mishandled by either side, the crisis provoked by the embassy attack could dramatically weaken or destroy the four-decade alliance between Egypt and the U.S. — which, of course, is exactly what the Salafists want.

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