As anti-American demonstrations continue around the Middle East, and particularly in Cairo, this week has underscored the tension and uncertainty between Egypt and the United States in the wake of the Arab spring.
Nicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times, says that unfortunately protests of this kind might happen periodically in the Arab world, because of the perception that inflammatory anti-Muslim statements made by fringe groups in the United States are representative of a more pervasive attitude throughout the country. What Kristof finds more troubling than the demonstrations themselves is the response in Egypt of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
"They blew it," Kristof says. "The Muslim Brotherhood, as you know, initially put out a message in Arabic encouraging people to go protest in front of the U.S. embassy, to defend Muhammad. And then, after the attack on the embassy, President Morsi went AWOL."
In Libya and Yemen, the tone immediately became apologetic after the attacks, but it was only after a "blunt phone call" from President Obama that Egypt's President Morsi came out to condemn the violence on the U.S. embassies.
Kristof posits that much of the tension between Egypt and the United States stems from another tension within Egypt itself. In many of these countries, Kristof says, there is a battle for public opinion between Islamic extremists who feel they've been marginalized since the revolution, and more moderate groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Although the U.S. was obviously the nominal target in Egypt and in Libya, I think that, in some ways, the government itself was the target."
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the events in the Middle East this week is how revealing they have been about the persistent lack of understanding between the United States and the Arab world. While of course the United States has had a role in suppressing Islamic people and groups in the past, "there's also a profound misunderstanding in many Islamic societies about how the U.S. works." Kristof explains that "even now, if you ask moderate people in many countries about this, they will on the one hand denounce the attacks on embassies; on the other, they will say, you know, its outrageous that the U.S. allows this kind of video to happen, and they will perceive some kind of hidden U.S. support for a video that they feel is extraordinarily offensive."
All of this, Kristof thinks, is going to continue to be a serious issue for U.S. relations with the Middle East, and particularly Egypt, in the years to come. "This kind of outrage, and violence, and the pandering to it that you saw from President Morsi, I think is a reflection of a much more difficult kind of diplomacy we're going to be engaging with in the region ahead."