What Do The Protests Say About Egypt’s New Leader?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Steve Inskeep talks with Shadi Hamid about how the protests in Egypt are shedding light on Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi. What kind of leader is he proving to be? And what kind of relationship can the U.S., and Obama, build with him? 

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST: Now, earlier this week, the television network Telemundo asked President Obama in an interview if Egypt was an ally of the United States. He said they were not an ally, but not an enemy. The State Department and other U.S. officials later clarified those remarks. Egypt is considered a non-NATO ally, but it raises other questions, which we’re going to talk about with Shadi Hamid, following the Middle East for the Brookings Institution Doha Center.

Does the United States have good reason to wonder if Egypt is still an ally?

SHADI HAMID: I think calling Egypt not necessarily an ally is a bit premature at this point. Morsi has only been in power for a couple months now. It’s very early to tell. I think up until just a couple days ago, the Morsi government was doing better than expected on foreign policy. They hadn’t diverged too much from the U.S. line on major issues. Now we’re seeing a major strain on the relationship, and I think it’s important to note that even though they acted late, the Brotherhood has tried to say the right things.

Whether that’s enough, we’ll have to wait and see, but I don’t think there’s anything – there’s no fundamental breech, and I think it’s encouraging that Brotherhood and President Morsi understand that they made a big mistake in not more explicitly condemning the attacks early on.

INSKEEP: Why do you think it would have taken them a couple of days to realize that an attack on a U.S. embassy was not a good thing?

HAMID: So President Morsi and the Brotherhood are doing a very difficult dance. They’re trying to appeal to two completely different audiences who want to hear two completely different things. They have their own conservative base. They have ultra-conservative Salafis who don’t like the U.S., who want to defy Washington, and who are asking Morsi to take a stand against this film. Egypt is becoming more democratic. That means that Morsi has to worry about popular sentiment.

You can’t appeal to two totally different audiences at the same time. And the other audience there is obviously the U.S. and the international community, which want to hear something very different from Morsi. And this is why anti-Americanism is a problem, because it constrains what elected leaders can do. And this is the new Middle East we’re talking about. We can no longer rely on elected leaders to do exactly what the U.S. wants them to do.

INSKEEP: Well, when you talk about popular sentiment, give me your sense of the country. The protestors who appeared outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo – there were no deaths in Cairo, we should be very clear, but people climbed up on a wall and tore down an American flag. Are they representative broadly of popular sentiment in Egypt right now?

HAMID: The people who scaled the wall, not necessarily. But if we’re talking about the broader anger at this film and the desire to defend Islam from attacks, yes. I would say that’s very much the mainstream of popular sentiment, and here we have a clash of values between the U.S. and Egypt. If you’re trying to make the argument in Egypt that freedom of speech should include the right to attack Islam and the prophet and the Quran, there is absolutely no constituency for that.

INSKEEP: Granting that the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian public would find this film profoundly offensive, are there voices in Egypt who would argue that it’s just not that important, it was an obscure film produced on the other side of the world?

HAMID: Yes. There are certainly voices that believe that. Are they the loudest and most influential voices? No. And I think in very tense situations like this, voices of reason do not always rise to the top. This film, in my view, isn’t so much the cause of the protest as much as it is a pretext. People don’t like America in Egypt. Egypt is, in fact, quite possibly the most anti-American country in the Arab world. So there is already is resentment that is always underneath the surface waiting to come out, and it really could have been anything. All you need is a trigger.

I know people in the U.S. think that Obama sided with the Egyptian revolution, but in Egypt, that is not the narrative you hear. There’s a real sense that the U.S. was late to the game, that stood with Mubarak until the very end, and it doesn’t go back a year and a half or two years. The U.S. supported the Mubarak regime for several decades. So we’re talking about a history that’s very much entrenched.

INSKEEP: We’ve been talking with Shadi Hamid. He is director of research for the Brookings Doha Center, which is in Qatar, part of the Brookings Institution.

Thanks for your time, sir.

HAMID: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: He’s on NPR News.

Click here for full audio of Shadi Hamid’s interview with Steve Inskeep »