Film protests could strengthen US-Egypt ties

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Protesters tear down a US flag at the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt (11 Sept 2012)

"We have no quarrel with the people of country X, just with their government." So goes the cliche uttered so many times by US government spokesmen.

In the light of the protests and violence in Egypt and the Middle East over the film deemed offensive by Muslims, it may be time to turn the saying around.

It may seem a perverse suggestion, but once the sadness and anger passes, this crisis could eventually be good for relations between the United States and the Egyptian governments.

The protests began in Egypt, before spreading to many Muslim countries. But despite the views of many commentators, they were not provoked by Egypt's new Muslim Brotherhood government, and the Egyptian government would much prefer that nothing had happened.

The demonstrations seem to have been stirred up by the more hardline Islamists, known as Salafists, when they aired extracts of the offending film on their television channel.

President Mohammed Mursi's critics in the West say he also urged protests, which is true. American commentators point out that he has been saying one thing to Washington, and quite another to his own domestic audience.

Clear signals

But the truth is he was caught in the middle, between the need to respond to the popular mood in his own country, and the need to maintain good relations with the United States and the West.

Image caption,
Mr Mursi must both be seen as a good Muslim and drive the economy forward

It has been a hard lesson in realpolitik for a president, and a movement, who have been thrust into government after decades in opposition.

The view from Washington, at least initially, was that President Mursi did not rise to the challenge.

A couple of days into the crisis, the US administration briefed heavily against him, criticising Mr Mursi for being too slow to condemn the violence. Who knows what words were exchanged in private, in the several conversations between President Mursi and President Barack Obama?

Mr Mursi may have been slow to respond, but he clearly did get the message. On Friday there was a letter to the New York Times from a key figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairet el-Shater, making it clear that Egypt did not hold the US government or people responsible for the anti-Islamic film.

It was a signal the administration in Washington cannot failed to have registered.

The West believes Khairet el-Shater is the "power behind the throne" of President Mursi.

President Mursi himself went on television to call for an end to attacks on embassies. The Brotherhood scaled down calls for a big protest, saying instead that they wanted just a "symbolic" presence in Tahrir Square.

A day later, they took even tougher action, sending in the riot police to clear Tahrir Square and the area around the US embassy, with the sort of rough tactics familiar from the days of President Hosni Mubarak.

The reasons for this fairly ruthless action are not hard to understand. Egypt desperately needs stability if it is to revive its economy, bring back tourists and foreign investment.

Right now, the Egyptian government is negotiating with the West for a multi-billion dollar IMF loan and other financial help and investment.

For President Mursi, demonstrating that he is a good Muslim who shares the outrage of fellow Muslims is one thing. But he knows that his government will stand or fall on whether it can deliver economic growth and prosperity to Egyptians.

In that, it is no different from governments around the world.

The lesson for Washington is potentially very reassuring. Egypt is not about to become a "rogue state", stirring up trouble for the West in the Middle East.

We are not about to see a replay of events in Iran three decades ago - where one of the West's most loyal allies became one of its most dedicated foes.

The reason that Western nightmare will not happen is simple: Egypt does not have Iran's resources of oil and gas. This is, and always has been, a trading nation locked into the global economy.

A couple of years ago, the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt would have been almost unthinkable.

The idea that such an Islamist government would then strive to maintain good relations with the United States? Well, the strangest things can happen.