WASHINGTON — The United States has been here before, praising an Egyptian leader for championing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts while expressing concern over his commitment to democracy at home. But with options limited, the Obama administration is keeping its faith in President Mohammed Morsi.
In a hectic week of Mideast unrest, Morsi emerged as America's key partner in working toward peace between the Jewish state and the Hamas leaders of the Gaza Strip, assuming a leadership role left vacant since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's ouster nearly two years ago.
After winning U.S. and worldwide praise, Morsi immediately cashed in on his new political capital by seizing more power at home.
His actions are the latest reminder that Washington can't be sure where its relationship will stand with the Arab world's most populous country as it transitions from decades of secular autocracy. It's moving to a more democratic government, but one that is less pro-American than its predecessors.
For now, the U.S. – as it did for years with Mubarak – wants to separate Morsi's domestic political maneuvers from his role as a Middle East mediator.
"We believe firmly that this needs to be resolved internally as part of a transition to democracy," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said of Morsi's new decrees, which place him above any kind of oversight, including that of the courts.
After dropping its allegiance to Mubarak in February 2011, the United States had hoped to create a new, more sustainable Egyptian alliance, structured on the legitimacy of a truly representative government. To get there, it had to work with a recalcitrant military leadership unsure about handing over power to popularly elected Islamists. It is now left trying to persuade Morsi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, to settle disputes with his opponents through negotiations.
But the U.S. isn't sure how hard to push, given the tangible if halting progress toward democracy Morsi has made. And it doesn't want to undercut the Egyptian leader after he challenged hardliners in his own country by committing to monitor weapon flows to Gaza and shepherd the fragile peace he secured between Hamas and Israel last week.
"Anytime you need a leader for external promises, the quid pro quo – admitted or not – is to back off on criticism of their domestic standing," said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's a foreign policy tightrope the Obama administration is going to have to learn how to walk."
The U.S. reaction is being closely watched internationally. Washington has a long history of making light criticism of Mubarak's human rights abuses at home while helping prop up his government with tens of billions of dollars in mainly military assistance.
Morsi last week granted himself near autocratic powers at least until a new constitution is adopted and parliamentary elections are held – a timeline that stretches to mid-2013. The Egyptian president says the moves are necessary to protect last year's revolution.
But the opposition says the moves neutralize the judiciary at a time when Morsi already holds executive and legislative powers. And in a show of opposition strength, more than 200,000 people flocked to Cairo's central Tahrir square on Tuesday, chanting against Morsi. "The people want to bring down the regime," they shouted.
Several U.S. officials said that Morsi's actions may not be as dangerous as they appear, citing the judiciary's ties to the old Mubarak government and its role in dissolving Egypt's first freely and fairly elected parliament earlier this year. They also praised him for opening a dialogue with opposition groups and judges about the changes.
"When confronted with concerns about the decree that he issued, President Morsi entered into discussions with the judiciary, with other stakeholders in Egypt," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. "That's a far cry from an autocrat just saying, `My way or the highway.'"
Still, Morsi's timing has put the White House in an awkward position, the decrees coming just a day after Obama aides praised the Egyptian president as a pragmatic and effective peacemaker.
Throughout the weeklong conflict between Israel and Hamas, White House officials emphasized the close coordination between Obama and Morsi. In the final stage of the negotiations, the two leaders spoke three times in 24 hours, with Obama working the phones with his Egyptian counterpart through the night.
They last spoke on Wednesday, shortly after the cease-fire was announced. The Egyptian leader didn't inform the American president about the coming decrees, officials said. The two haven't spoken since, though the U.S. has expressed its concerns through other channels, such as a Monday telephone call between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, also has had regular contact with Egyptian officials.
Administration officials insist Morsi's internal maneuvering hasn't dampened their assessment of him. They note his consistent support for the 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel, which remain deeply unpopular in Egypt and have been regularly questioned by leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that forms his base. They stress that Morsi has struck a note of inclusiveness and has emphasized in his discussions with American leaders that he wants to focus on Egypt's struggling economy.
Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about Egypt's leader in the midst of political instability there.
Joel Rubin, a former State Department official who worked on Mideast issues, warned against rushing to judgment on Morsi.
"The real strategic cornerstone for our relationship with Egypt has its grounding in the security relationship with Israel," he said. "And so far, that has been maintained."
It's unclear what Washington could do, anyhow, beyond prodding Morsi to respect the rule of law and advance democracy – which he may yet have full intention of doing. The U.S. tolerates imperfect partners from Afghanistan to Africa when it serves U.S. national interests, and Egypt's crucial geopolitical position between the rest of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula gives it significant leverage. The country has long been a bulwark of U.S. efforts to contain Iran's influence in the Arab world and to fight extremist groups such as al-Qaida.
And, after waiting for almost two years to find a partner it can rely on for regional stability, the U.S. has little incentive to sour relations now with Morsi. More political uncertainty in Egypt could imperil that country's democratic transition. And a power vacuum would cause deep concern for the U.S. and Israel, with far less cooperative political groups lying in wait.