White House: Egypt's democracy on 'difficult path'

Monday - 1/28/2013, 3:55pm EST

AP National Security Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Egypt is on a "difficult path" to a peaceful democracy, the White House said Monday as months of lukewarm political support for the conservative Islamic government was in danger of backfiring after deadly weekend riots pushed Cairo to crack down on civil rights.

It was the latest strain on the stretched-thin detente between the Obama administration and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood following _ a fault line that already has delayed $1 billion in U.S. aid to Cairo. Billions of additional dollars in international loans also have been shelved because of Egypt's instability.

Washington has worried since June _ when Egyptian voters overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak and picked Morsi as its first democratically elected leader _ that the Brotherhood ultimately would default to its anti-American and anti-Israel roots instead of taking a more moderate stance towards peace.

A spate of recent steps _ from Brotherhood-led attacks on protesters, to vague protestations of women's freedoms in the nation's new constitution, to revelations of old comments by Morsi referring to Jews as "bloodsuckers" and "pigs" _ have raised alarm among senior U.S. officials. Political unrest in Egypt peaked this weekend with clashes that left more than 50 people dead and forced Morsi to deploy military forces and impose a curfew as part of a month-long state of emergency in three Suez Canal provinces.

"We have engaged directly with the Egyptian government as they move forward on the difficult path towards greater democracy and rule of law, and we will continue to do so," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. "There needs to be a lasting solution to the conflict that we see in Egypt and it has to be a solution that adheres to the rights of all Egyptians.

"Obviously, this is not a lasting solution," Carney said.

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo closed hours early on Monday, fearing that protests against Morsi and the Brotherhood could turn violent and endanger American diplomats who work a few miles from Tahrir Square, the base of Egypt's revolution in 2001. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials are "obviously watching how this moves forward," and urged Morsi's secular and liberal political opponents to agree to a national dialogue with the president to settle the burgeoning crisis.

"There are a lot of different views about how to take the country forward," Nuland said.

Egypt is the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, but its influence and affiliates have spread across the Mideast and into North Africa _ where two recent terrorist attacks and a French assault on Islamist militants in Mali have presented Obama with a new front in the war against extremism for his second term.

The White House has little interest in picking a fight with the Brotherhood, which has grown in size and stature across the region since the Arab Spring revolts. The Brotherhood and similar Islamist movements are regarded warily by monarchies in Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. Its members are part of the opposition coalition seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. It has small followings in Qatar, Algeria, and a like-minded _ although not officially affiliated _ ally in Tunisia.

The Brotherhood describes itself as a non-violent social organization dedicated to instilling Islamic values in the society. In Egypt, the group was repressed by former regimes for decades and has struggled with adjusting to its new role leading the government. Its members, fearing a coup, are widely blamed with attacking anti-Morsi protesters outside the presidential palace in Cairo last month in clashes that left at least 10 people dead.

"This is the kind of group that will be a pain to deal with for the United States, but it's not al-Qaida; it's not a security threat," said Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University who has been researching Islamic movements for nearly a decade. "The biggest fear on the part of the (Obama) administration is a political breakdown in Egypt. They are worried that a collapse in the Egyptian state would be destabilizing on the region, and might allow the flow of arms and fighters among more radical movements in the region."

Since the Tahrir Square revolution, Washington has tried to help Egypt build a democratic state without appearing to tread on its sovereignty. Morsi won election last June with 51 percent of Egypt's vote, and has since offered words of moderation, brokered a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza and bore down on terrorist dens in the Sinai Peninsula.