WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's statement in an interview Wednesday night that the Egyptian government was neither an ally nor an enemy to the U.S. turned heads. It was an unfiltered take on the state of relations between the two countries. And coming in the wake of riots at the U.S. embassy in Cairo -- which the Egyptian government took a notably long time to condemn –- it suggested a sense of strain or trepidation.
On Thursday morning, the Obama administration sought to clarify the matter.
"'Ally' is a legal term of art," said spokesman Tommy Vietor. "We don’t have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt like we do with our NATO allies. But as the President has said, Egypt is a long-standing 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. Just last night the President spoke with President [Mohamed] Morsi to review the strategic partnership between the Unites States and Egypt, while making clear our mutual obligations – including the protection of diplomats and diplomatic facilities."
If Obama was indeed trying to parse his language so that it was legally accurate, he didn't convey such a lawyerly touch during the interview Wednesday. Instead, he seemed to be speaking candidly about a complex set of relations. The United States has long considered Egypt a partner in the Middle East, sending the country more aid than any other in the region besides Israel. In the wake of Morsi's election and, more recently, the riots at the embassy in Cairo, relations have been complicated and the president has sought a middle ground.
"I don't think we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy. They are a new government that is trying to find its way," he told Telemundo, which broadcast the interview.
Underscoring the complexity of the topic, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday also expressed skepticism about the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt.
"I don't know about the word ally. We'll see," Pelosi said during her weekly briefing. The California Democrat traveled to Egypt in March.
Regardless of whether the U.S. and Egypt are closely aligned, Pelosi emphasized that the U.S. has national security interests in Egypt -- namely, those related to Israel -- that require the U.S. to stand by the country.
"Egypt is, I believe, the largest Muslim country in the world. It is a force in the Middle East. It is a country with whom we must have a good relationship," she said. "We have an interest in Egypt's success. Let's hope we can do that as allies."
Vietor is right in the technical sense -- the administration, for example, calls Pakistan a "partner" as opposed to an ally. But his statement is unlikely to quiet critics who openly question why and whether America should be aiding the Morsi regime.
Some conservatives, including Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.), have said aid to Egypt and Libya should be cut off in the aftermath of Tuesday's violence, which left four U.S. officials dead. It is unclear whether the Egyptian or Libyan governments, both of which are struggling to transition to a democratic system, had any role in the protests, but some lawmakers have called for cutting off their funding anyway.
Pelosi appeared unaware that anyone was pursuing those measures.
"I don't know who that is. Who's that?" she asked when Landry's name was cited.
"I don't agree with that," Pelosi said. "Even our friends in Israel have said ... that we should be supporting, publicly and privately ... Egypt's success."