White House downplays Obama’s ‘encounter’ with new Egyptian leader

The news that President Obama will meet in September with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi prompted a flurry of messaging in Washington and Cairo that underscored the sensitivity of U.S. relations with the Muslim Brotherhood politician.

While Morsi’s party seized on the meeting as a chance to solidify his standing, White House press secretary Jay Carney downplayed it as a mere “encounter” for Obama.

“Well, the president will be going to UNGA, the United Nations General Assembly, in September, and he will, I’m sure, encounter a number of leaders — after all, that’s a gathering of world leaders — including the new Egyptian president there,” Carney said. “There are no planned bilateral meetings in Washington around UNGA with any leader.”

Carney said Obama “looks forward” to meeting Morsi when the U.N. General Assembly reconvenes in September, but emphasized that no one-on-one talks are planned.

Those remarks contradicted Egyptian aide Yasser Ali, who on Sunday reportedly declared that Obama had “extended an invitation” for Morsi to visit the United States.

The cautious approach by the administration reflects the unease that some lawmakers have about the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been linked to violence in the past. A handful of GOP lawmakers immediately called for ending America’s $1.3 billion annual military assistance to Egypt after Morsi won the presidency in June.

“The Arab Spring is nothing more than a radical Islamic nightmare,” Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) wrote on Facebook.

The extent of Morsi’s power is also an open question, following the Egyptian military’s decision to disband parliament and prevent the formation of a new government.

One analyst said the Obama administration is walking a difficult line, trying to signal support for a democratically elected leader without offending the Egyptian military, which remains in control “for the moment and for the foreseeable future.”

“There didn’t use to be these competing relationships,” said Khaled Elgindy, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Military ties have been at the core of America’s relationship with Egypt for more than 30 years, and remain crucial to U.S. strategic priorities such as relations with Israel, counterterrorism and oil shipments through the Suez Canal. 

“I think the U.S. clearly has to tread lightly, because you don’t want to aggravate the military-to-military relationship, which is I think really front and center, but at the same time you don’t want to slight the elected civilian leadership. You are, after all, a proponent of democracy,” Elgindy said.

The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, is keen to portray Morsi as a power player on the international scene, an effort that would be boosted immensely by face-time with America’s commander in chief.

“He’s legitimately elected president,” Elgindy said. “And to the extent that legitimacy is echoed by powers like the United States, certainly they’re going to try to capitalize on that.”

He predicted that Morsi would use the U.N. meeting to “project leadership and to project that ‘I’m the one in charge.’ The reality, of course, is a little bit different.”

A struggle that Elgindy deemed a “tug-of-war” is brewing for control of Egypt between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The latest tit-for-tat started Sunday, after Morsi issued a presidential decree calling for parliament to reconvene. Islamist parties won the legislative elections in January, but a court from the era of deposed President Hosni Mubarak dissolved parliament in June over allegations that some of its members weren’t properly elected.

Egypt’s Higher Constitutional Court on Monday reiterated that its ruling was “final and binding,” setting up a potential showdown between the military and Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, which has vowed a million-man march in support of Morsi’s decree.

Elgindy said that the situation in Egypt is fluid, with each side overplaying its hand at times, but that there’s no need for U.S. leaders to fear an outbreak of violence.

“We’re not on the brink of some kind of major crisis,” he said.