What We Can Learn from the Attacks on U.S. Embassies

This week's U.S. embassy attacks are the product of intense jockeying for power in an Arab political landscape riven with both new and familiar challenges. Here are five key lessons to take away from an ugly week

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Yemeni protesters storm the U.S. embassy in the capital, Sana‘a, on Sept. 13 2012

2. Egypt’s Leaders are Politically Weak and are Navigating a Minefield

Noting the initial silence from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood after the storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, George Washington University Arab-politics specialist Marc Lynch saw political paralysis. “They seem far more concerned at the moment with their domestic political interest in protecting their right flank against Salafi outbidding than with behaving like the governing party of a state,” Lynch wrote, adding:

Morsi and the Brotherhood do not seem to understand, or perhaps they simply do not care, how important their public stance is today in defining their image. The United States has taken real risks by engaging with the Brotherhood, pushing for democratic change despite their likely victory in fair elections, and insisting that the Egyptian military allow the completion of the transition after Morsi’s victory … Many in Washington will feel that they have been repaid with Morsi’s silence after the breach of the embassy wall which could well have resulted in the same kind of tragedy as in Benghazi. And that will have enduring effects on the nature and extent of American support for Egypt’s transition — how much harder is it going to be to get debt relief through Congress now?

The Brotherhood is all too aware of its political weakness. The extent to which an elected civilian government will be allowed, by the junta of generals that seized power from Mubarak, to exercise political power remains to be tested. Sure, Morsy has completed an impressive overhaul of the top leadership of the military, but he’s not in a position to challenge the core prerogatives it claims for itself. Indeed, maintaining the annual $1.5 billion aid stipend from Washington, and keeping the peace with Israel, would count as core interests of the Egyptian military, and it’s no surprise that the Brotherhood feels pressure to oblige. On the other hand, it has shed more electoral support than it could have imagined to the Salafists and has also come to rely on their support when pushing for Islamist dominance of the constitution-writing process in parliament.

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

Thus the strange balancing act of a President at once trying to woo U.S. investors and the International Monetary Fund and also promising in his inaugural address to free the blind cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman, serving life in a U.S. prison for his role as spiritual mentor of the proto-Qaeda plot to blow up New York City’s World Trade Center in 1993. That was never the sort of promise that was going to endear him to Washington, but it was a popular demand in Egypt.

If that apparent support for a convicted terrorist was overlooked, the fact that Egyptian protesters were able to breach the security of the U.S. embassy in Cairo could not be. And a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shater — the movement’s pick for the presidency before his exclusion from the election on a questionable technicality — appeared to be mindful of the dangers raised by Lynch. In a letter to the New York Times published late Thursday, al-Shater expressed condolences to the U.S. for the diplomats killed in Libya and called for an investigation of the police for failing to stop the “illegal” breach of embassy security by the protesters. He called on protesters to express their anger but noted, “Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.” In an unmistakable plea for understanding from Washington, he concluded:

Egypt is going through a state of revolutionary fluidity, and public anger needs to be dealt with responsibly and with caution … We hope that the relationships that both Americans and Egyptians worked to build in the past couple of months can sustain the turbulence of this week’s events. Our nations have much to learn from each other as we embark on building the new Egypt.

But the U.S. embassy in Cairo in a remarkable Twitter clash with the Brotherhood, warned that it was also monitoring the group’s Arabic Twitter feed, noticing the discrepancy between the reassuring words like those of al-Shater and the messages in Arabic cheering on the protesters. That discrepancy, however, may be the key political survival strategy of the Brotherhood in the coming months, as it finds itself surrounded by power centers hoping for its failure. Indeed, in the name of dealing “responsibly and with caution” with the anger sparked by Islam-bashing film, the Brotherhood on Friday will stage a peaceful protest rally. It clearly feels the need to reclaim this issue from the Salafists, for narrow political reasons as much as anything else. After all, allowing and even encouraging ritual denunciation of the West and Israel to channel popular outrage was a time-honored strategy even for the Mubarak regime.

But for the Salafists, stirring popular anger at the U.S. as a means of challenging and undermining the Muslim Brotherhood is pretty much a no-lose strategy. After all (see Lesson 4), most Egyptians continue to hold a dim view of the U.S.

PHOTOS: Celebrating the Muslim Brotherhood’s Victory

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