CAIRO // President Mohammed Morsi attempted to prevent the relationship between Egypt and Washington worsening yesterday when he condemned the attacks on US embassies brought about by the showing of a film that defames the Prophet Mohammed.
But he added that he condemns and opposes "all who ... insult our Prophet", saying that insulting the Prophet Mohammed was a "red line" and that Egyptians had the right to protest peacefully.
Mr Morsi was talking during a visit to Brussels as protests against the US-made video Innocence of Muslims entered a third day in Cairo and also erupted in Gaza, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh, Lebanon and Yemen.
Four protesters were reported to have been shot dead in a demonstration outside the US Embassy in Sanaa.
Egypt's president offered his condolences over the deaths of US ambassador to Libya, J Christopher Stevens, and three of his staff in Benghazi.
Mr Morsi had been slow to respond to the protests outside the US Embassy in Cairo, where a group of about 2,000 people chanted against the US on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and burnt the embassy's American flag.
In clashes yesterday, police lobbed tear-gas canisters into a crowd of protesters who in turn threw rocks at officers preventing access to streets around the embassy.
At least 70 people were injured and 23 people were detained, according to the Egyptian state news agency.
The Muslim Brotherhood has publicly denounced the killing of the embassy staff in Libya, but called for large protests today.
Several governments, including those of Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia, were attempting to block clips of the video from playing in their countries in a bid to prevent public outrage from growing to the same levels as when a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005. More than 100 people died in protests and bombings at Danish embassies.
YouTube said it had blocked the video clip in some countries, such as Egypt and Libya.
Analysts saw the comments from Mr Morsi yesterday as an attempt at damage control after the US president Barack Obama told a US television station that he did not consider Egypt an "ally" or an "enemy", reflecting in the strongest terms yet that the long-time close relationship between the two countries was under severe strain.
Mr Obama had said during an interview with the Spanish-language US network Telemundo that Egypt was a “new government that is trying to find its way”. He warned that if Egypt shows “they’re not taking responsibility”, then it would become a “real big problem”.
“This is by far the biggest foreign policy challenge to date for President Morsi,” said Mazen Hassan, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
“He has to walk a very tight rope between condemning the movie to satisfy the demands of the angry public in Egypt and at the same time not risking the relations with the US.”
With parliamentary elections scheduled before the end of the year in Egypt, Mr Morsi was even more at pains to avoid coming across as a lackey of the US, Professor Hassan said.
A major test of those elections will be whether the Muslim Brotherhood, from whose ranks Mr Morsi emerged, will be able to regain the near dominance it had over the parliament before a court ordered it dissolved because part of the elections were found unconstitutional.
Egypt was well on track to develop a stronger relationship with the US before the flare-up over the video. A large business delegation visited this week in a bid to convince American companies to invest in Egypt.
The US provides US$1.5 billion (Dh5bn) of annual military aid to Egypt – second only to the aid given to Israel – and is in the process of writing off $1bn of Egypt’s debts.
Namira Negm, a legal adviser to the Egyptian foreign ministry who is on leave to teach international relations at the American University in Cairo, said Mr Obama’s comment about Egypt not being an ally of the US was a “big warning”.
“They are saying that we do not see you as our full ally as you once were,” she said.
“The American administration was already taking a very cautious approach to Egypt’s new government ... these recent incidents will make them even more cautious about increasing the relationship.”
& Bradley Hope on