Gameday with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy

Gameday with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy

No. 13 USC rebounded from the drubbing Stanford gave it last week by grinding out a 27-9 victory over Cal on Saturday. It wasn’t flashy — quarterback Matt Barkley did an awful lot of handing off — but Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, in New York for the U.N. General Assembly meeting, was probably relieved. "Go Trojans!" he said in a pre-trip interview with the New York Times. He did not offer any commentary on Barkley’s tanking Heisman campaign.

Morsy, who completed his Ph.D. in materials science at USC in the early 1980s and whose two sons are U.S. citizens, has a complicated relationship with the United States. He told the Times that he "learned a lot" during his time in California, but then quickly clarified that he meant "scientifically." California’s laid-back attitude about cohabitation, gang problems, and preponderance of "naked restaurants" all made him uneasy. "I don’t admire that," he told the Times. "But that is the society. They are living their way." The future Muslim Brotherhood official apparently never really got into the swing of SoCal life.

But if he is still lukewarm on American culture, Morsy seems to have at least moderated his most outrageously anti-American positions since becoming president. Whereas for most of the 2000s he was all too happy to peddle 9/11 conspiracy theories — "When you come and tell me that the plane hit the tower like a knife in butter, then you are insulting us…Something must have happened from the inside. It’s impossible," he told the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid in 2010 — Egypt’s first democratically elected president at least steers clear of the topic now.

Morsy rankled American officials by reaching out to Iran and by failing to denounce (immediately) the attack by demonstrators on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, but on the whole, his approach has been what you would expect from the leader of a deeply conservative country that is understandably wary of the United States. (Egyptians have no illusions about who propped up Mubarak for all those years.) As Morsy said in the Times interview: "Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region." But if Morsy has been resolute about demonstrating his independence from the United States, he has also indicated that he wants to maintain a constructive relationship with Washington, going as far as saying that the two countries have the potential to be "real friends." 

Since the embassy storming, however, Obama has been remarkably cool toward his Egyptian counterpart. On Sept. 13, Obama told the Spanish-language network Telemundo that he did not consider Egypt an ally — a position the White House later clarified — and he reportedly declined a request to meet with Morsy at the White House this week. It’s not clear, however, what Obama expects of Morsy. On the one hand, he has repeatedly supported the right of Egyptians to "determine their own destiny." On the other, he appears nonplussed by Morsy’s need to respond to domestic political forces.

Steven Cook, a fellow at CFR, has a good read on this cognitive dissonance:

Americans consistently fail to recognize that Arabs have their own politics and have the ability to calculate their own interests independently of what Washington demands.  As a result, whenever a crisis erupts that presents Egyptian leaders with a choice of kowtowing to Washington or protecting their political position at home, domestic politics will win virtually every time.

Obama may not be able to fully appreciate the drama of college football, having attended only universities with second rate football programs, but maybe he and Morsy ought to watch the USC game next week and talk this one out.