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Egyptians have been protesting by the millions against now ex-President Mohammed Morsi, but there have been other noticeable themes among protesters – specifically, the anti-American theme. While Morsi’s dictatorial ways and bumbling of the economy have been the central complaint of protesters, the image of U.S. President Barack H. Obama has been prominent on many protest signs.
Obama, it will be recalled, was a principal backer of the revolution against Hosni Mubarak, and enthusiastically endorsed the election of Morsi as the first democratically elected leader of Egypt ever. When Morsi was elected in June 2012, Obama called him to congratulate him on his victory. In a statement, the White House said that the U.S. “will continue to support Egypt’s transition to democracy and stand by the Egyptian people as they fulfill the promise of their revolution.” The statement also “emphasized [Obama’s] interest in working together with President-elect Morsi, on the basis of mutual respect, to advance the many shared interests between Egypt and the United States.”
It later became clear that the Egyptian people did not necessarily appreciate Obama’s expressions of support for Morsi. In September, an Egyptian mob stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, at the same time the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked. In an interview, Obama said of Egypt that “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.” Regardless, he said, the current government in Egypt was “democratically elected. I think it’s a work in progress.”
As protests began to mount towards the end of 2012, Obama began expressing concern over Morsi’s repressive ways. In a statement on December 6, the White House said that “President Obama called President Morsi today to express his deep concern about the deaths and injuries of protesters in Egypt. The President emphasized that all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable. He welcomed President Morsi’s call for a dialogue with the opposition but stressed that such a dialogue should occur without preconditions… He reiterated the United States’ continued support for the Egyptian people and their transition to a democracy that respects the rights of all Egyptians.”
Still, Obama was clearly on Morsi’s side; in May 2013, he overrode a Congressional effort to withhold military funding to Egypt, issuing a waiver authorizing transfer of the aid over restrictions imposed by Congress, which had sought to tie the assistance to progress in human rights efforts. According to senior Congressional officials, it was unlikely Egypt could have met those criteria.
The funding was not widely publicized in the U.S., but it was noticed by the Egyptian people, who began blaming the U.S., and particularly Obama, for supporting the repressive Morsi regime. During the recent protests that led up to Morsi’s ouster, many signs and shouts accusing Obama of supporting repression could be seen in Tahrir Square, and in other protest centers.
The phenomenon was clear to CNN’s Reza Sayah, who on Wednesday night commented on the signs claiming that Obama “had allied himself with terrorists,” “Obama backs a fascist regime in Egypt,” “Obama is killing Egyptians,” and others. “Egyptians love Americans,” Sayeh said, “but they don’t love U.S. foreign policy. Remember, they will never forget that for decades, it was Washington that supported the dictator Hosni Mubarak and his brutal police state.”
On Thursday, the State Department ordered the departure of all non-essential personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. A skeleton staff will be kept on at the site, with families and non-essential personnel to be evacuated from the country. The State Department did not say if it feared a takeover of the embassy. So far, no other foreign governments have ordered an evacuation of their personnel from Egypt.