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Ally Or Not? The White House Seeks To Nuance Obama's Remarks On Egypt

The Obama administration has stepped back from remarks by the president earlier this week in which he suggested that Egypt was something less than a firm ally.

Following unrest in Egypt and the killing of four Americans in Libya that was sparked at least in part by a film seemingly aimed at stoking Muslim anger, Obama, referring to Egypt, told the Spanish-language Telemundo: "I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy."

However, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor in a later statement sought to clarify the remark, saying "ally" is a legal term of art.

"We don't have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt like we do with our NATO allies," Vietor said. "But as the president has said, Egypt is a longstanding and close partner of the United States, and we have built on that foundation by supporting Egypt's transition to democracy and working with the new government."

As The New York Times notes, the remark comes at a time when ...

"In Egypt, in particular, leaders scrambled to repair deep strains with Washington provoked by their initial response to attacks on the American Embassy on Tuesday, tacitly acknowledging that they erred in their response by focusing far more on anti-American domestic opinion than on condemning the violence.

"The attacks squeezed [Egyptian] President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood between conflicting pressures from Washington and their Islamic constituency at home, a senior Brotherhood official acknowledged. During a 20-minute phone call Wednesday night, Mr. Obama warned Mr. Morsi that relations would be jeopardized if the authorities in Cairo failed to protect American diplomats and stand more firmly against anti-American attacks."

On Friday, the Muslim Brotherhood backed away from its call for nationwide protests against the anti-Islam film produced in the U.S. Even so, demonstrations were taking place in Tahrir Square.

Ahead of the protests Friday, Morsi appealed for calm, according to The Wall Street Journal, saying Islam requires that Muslims "protect our guests and their homes and places of work."

"So I call on all to consider this, consider the law, and not attack embassies, consulates, diplomatic missions or Egyptian property," he said.

Obama's remarks may have raised eyebrows, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pronounced them "fine," although, not surprisingly, he had broader criticisms of the administration's foreign policy.

Shadi Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center in Qatar, told NPR he thought Obama's remark was "a bit premature."

"Morsi has only been in power for a few months now," he says. "Even though they entered late, the Brotherhood has tried to say the right things."

Hamid called Egypt "quite possibly the most anti-American country in the Arab world."

"There is already resentment just below the surface ready to come out," he says. "I know people in the U.S. think that Obama sided with the Egyptian revolution, but in Egypt, that is not the narrative you hear. There is a sense that the U.S. was late to the game and stood with [former President Hosni] Mubarak until the very end."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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