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Does the US consider Egypt an Ally? After the Arab Spring, Obama weighs options

Howard LaFranchiThe Christian Science Monitor

Tensions in US-Egypt relations, which have spilled into the open amid continuing anti-American protests in Cairo, suggest two friends facing uncertainties following deep changes in their relationship.

President Obama said earlier this week that Egypt under its new Islamist leaders is “a work in progress” – expressing the doubts that Washington has felt since the June election of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Obama added that while US would not “consider [Egypt] an ally,... we don’t consider them an enemy,” either.

Meanwhile, Mr. Morsi has looked like something less than a steadfast friend in failing to act quickly against the protests sparked by a low-budget video made in America that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad. When he did speak, he seemed to offer only a tepid rebuke of anti-US violence.

Even before this week’s protests erupted, Morsi was treading a delicate balance between domestic pressures to show resolve with the US and the strategic reality of Egypt’s dependence on the US.

Morsi will have an opportunity to demonstrate how he is walking that line when he visits the US later this month. But his response to the protests is only one among several pieces of evidence suggesting that, while Morsi knows he cannot afford to alienate the US, he would also like to loosen Egypt’s bonds to the US and make the US-Egypt relationship less exclusive.

For example, the visit to Washington of Egypt’s first democratically elected president might be expected to be cause for great fanfare, but the White House has yet to confirm that Obama will even meet with Morsi. Meanwhile, Morsi’s Washington visit, which will be part of his trip to the US to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York, comes after he has already visited China – where he won commitments of debt relief – Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Washington’s initial irritation over Morsi’s brief stop in Tehran for a Non-Aligned Movement summit shifted after Morsi used his speech to slam Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a surprise that infuriated the Iranian hosts and prompted the Syrian delegates to walk out.

Some US officials and Egypt experts are holding out hope that, with time, Morsi will feel strong enough in his new role to build a firmer relationship with the US. Their view is that the US should be patient with a new government that is still adjusting to life in power after decades of being the opposition.

The US is negotiating with Cairo on debt relief, and officials say the US is also encouraging the International Monetary Fund to extend to Egypt a multibillion-dollar loan package. In addition, the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt recently hosted a gathering of more than 100 US business executives in Cairo as part of a White House-initiated effort to boost Egypt as fertile ground for American business investment.

Those efforts suggest the Obama administration realizes the US has a crucial stake in strengthening Egypt’s economy – and in helping Egypt create jobs for the same young men who have been cursing America and burning the US flag this week.

But even with that, Obama’s lukewarm words about Egypt point to a testing period for determining just how much of a partner the new Egypt is going to be.