Obama: Egypt is not US ally, nor an enemy

President Obama at a Presidential campaign event in Las Vegas, Nevada on 12 September 2012 President Obama warned of "problems" if Egypt did not protect the US embassy and its staff

President Barack Obama has said the United States does not currently consider Egypt to be an ally.

He was speaking with reference to violent clashes at the US embassy in Cairo, over a US-made anti-Islamic film which has sparked anger among Muslims.

His comments also came after the storming of the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the US ambassador on Tuesday.

President Obama referred to US-Egypt relations as a "work in progress".

"I don't think we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy. They are a new government that is trying to find its way," Mr Obama said in a television interview with Spanish-language network Telemundo.

He said that so far Egypt's government has "said the right thing and taken the right steps" but it has also responded to other events in ways that "may not be aligned with our interests".

President Obama also said that he expected Egypt to protect the US embassy and its staff.

"If they take actions that indicate they are not taking those responsibilities, as all other countries do where we have embassies, I think that's going to be a problem," Mr Obama said.

Analysis

President Obama's comments serve political purposes at home and abroad. A distancing of Washington from the new order in Egypt will not upset the country's new president whose own political background is in the Muslim Brotherhood camp - highly sceptical of US goals in the region.

Amidst riots outside the US embassy in Cairo, Mr Obama is also signalling, as Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the IISS puts it, that "the US cannot be taken for granted. He is looking for leverage over Egypt, putting the responsibility for moving Egypt forward, firmly on Egypt's own shoulders".

At home, amidst the strident debate of the US presidential election campaign, Mr Obama loses no friends by distancing himself from the Egyptian authorities. There is a pervading sense of fatigue in the US with the Middle East and a growing public feeling that "the Arab world" is somehow ungrateful for US support during the upheavals of the Arab Spring.

Egypt was a close and vital Middle East ally of the United States while ousted President Hosni Mubarak was in power.

Cairo has been key US ally since 1979 Egypt-Israel peace deal, and the US gives more than $1bn in military aid to Egypt every year.

After last year's uprising and the resurgence of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, question marks have been raised over the future of the relationship.

Appeal for calm

Angry anti-US protests have taken place across the Middle East and North Africa.

The grounds of the US embassy in the Yemeni capital Sanaa were briefly stormed by protesters on Thursday.

On Wednesday, demonstrators in Cairo angry at the film - Innocence of Muslims - breached the walls of the US embassy and tore down the flag. The clashes, which began on Tuesday, continued in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Egypt's interior ministry says 16 people were injured overnight - 13 of them members of the security forces. Two police vehicles were burnt out and 12 protesters were arrested.

President Mohammad Mursi has appealed for calm: "I call on everyone to take that into consideration, to not violate Egyptian law... to not assault embassies."

"I condemn and oppose all who... insult our prophet. [But] it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad," he said in a statement broadcast by state media.

In July US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Mr Mursi for the first time and reaffirmed Washington's "strong support" for the Egyptian people and their shift to civilian rule.

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