Morsi's tepid response threatens US-Egypt ties

Democrats and Republicans who had so far given Egypt's Islamist government the benefit of the doubt say they're outraged by the images of protesters tearing down the U.S. flag at the Cairo embassy on Tuesday and appalled by President Mohamed Morsi's weak response.

The anger could put at risk billions of dollars in U.S. aid just as the Arab world's most populous country is reeling from a collapsed economy and sky-high unemployment following last year's turbulent revolution. Egypt gets $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid a year and was in the middle of negotiating a $4.8 billion low-interest IMF loan and a $1 billion debt forgiveness package with the U.S. government when the protests started.

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President Obama was the first to weigh in, telling Telemundo Wednesday night that Egypt was neither an ally nor an enemy. The administration sought to clarify that statement Thursday — White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One that “ally is a legal term of art” — while leaving the impression that the president had had some strong words for Morsi when the two talked Wednesday night.

Asked if Obama was frustrated on the call, Carney said, “Not at all — he was just very clear. I wouldn’t say he was frustrated.” Carney added that Obama made “clear our mutual obligations including the protection of diplomats,” but said there were no plans to withhold aid.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had tougher words during her weekly press briefing.

"I don't know about the word ally,” she said. “We'll see.”

Other lawmakers didn't hold back.

“I'm deeply concerned and I'm frankly outraged that he didn't immediately come out and condemn the attack in the way that he should have,” Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteBattle brews over Trump’s foreign policy Battle for the Senate: Top of ticket dominates NH voters hold Ayotte accountable for gun control votes MORE (R-N.H.), a strong advocate of U.S. leadership in the Middle East, told The Hill in a hallway interview. “We need to engage with Morsi and let him know that there's not an endless measure to our patience.”

The Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick DurbinDick DurbinLawmakers eye early exit from Washington Senators crafting bill to limit deportations under Trump Warren pushes Dems to get tough with Trump MORE (D-Ill.), told The Hill that Morsi did himself no favors with his response to one of the first major crises he's faced since he won election in June.

“I understand that when you buy into this notion of democracy and free elections, that it's unpredictable what will come. But I think we have the right and the obligation to ask where [Morsi and his government] stand today and whether they still share our values,” Durbin said after a nomination hearing Thursday morning. “There are many, many questions that remain about our relationship with Egypt. It is still unclear as to the direction that they're headed.”

And Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs oversight panel, told The Hill that the United States should withhold aid until all the protesters who breached the Cairo embassy wall are arrested.

Egyptian security forces were present outside the embassy but stood by as protesters scaled the wall and burned the Stars and Stripes on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to reports from the scene. Morsi himself was AWOL for 24 hours before he issued his first response on Wednesday, which contained no apology but called on the U.S. embassy to take “all legal measures” against the U.S.-made anti-Islam video online that's blamed for inciting the protests.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which controls parliament and backed Morsi's election, however, put out a separate message on Twitter Wednesday expressing regret for the attack and urging protesters to remain peaceful. Morsi himself finally condemned the attack on Thursday after he'd left Egyptian soil.

"We condemn strongly ... all those who launch such provocations and who stand behind that hatred," Morsi said in Brussels, according to The Associated Press. He said that he asked Obama in his call "to put an end to such behavior,” referring to the anti-Islam movie trailer.

"But at the same time we say this cannot be taken as a justification for attacking embassies or consulates," he said, according to the AP. "The Egyptian state is responsible for protecting embassies and consulates, and the Egyptian people will not engage in these ... unlawful acts."

Morsi is in Brussels on his first trip to Europe since becoming president to demonstrate his democratic credentials and seek aid. He secured a promise of about $900 million from the European Union, Reuters reports.

Ayotte told The Hill that Morsi's more recent statements "have been a little better." 

"I think that it would be to our detriment to disengage right now, it would be to the detriment of the safety of our country," she said.