Washington vilified on both sides of Egypt’s divide

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Pictures of Barack Obama have popped up all over Cairo. Some have his faced crossed out in paint. Heavy black beards are daubed onto others.

No matter which side you talk to in Egypt, where people have been polarized by a violent political crisis, the U.S. president is cast as the villain.

Islamists who support Mohammed Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, who was overthrown by the military a week ago, are angry at the United States because they believe it allowed, and even plotted, what they call a military coup.

The fact that Washington declines to call it that has merely reinforced suspicion among Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Many non-Islamists glad to see the back of Mursi are also upset. They believe the United States has cozied up to the Brotherhood since it was elected into office, turning U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson into a hate figure for many.

Egyptians have long been hostile to U.S. foreign policy, seeing it as pro-Israeli, hypocritical and self-serving despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Cairo since Egypt signed a U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

But antipathy has grown stronger in the last two-and-a-half years of turmoil since autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, along time ally of Washington, was toppled in a 2011 uprising.

Four years ago, cheers greeted Obama’s speech at Cairo University, amid brief hopes of closer ties between the United States and the Muslim world. For most Egyptians, those hopes had faded long ago. In the latest political drama, a darker anti-American mood has enveloped rival groups in a divided country.

The United States, which has a keen interest in having a stable ally in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation and a neighbor of Israel, denies taking sides in the latest crisis.

U.S. officials have struggled to explain how Washington can avoid calling Mursi’s ouster a military coup.

Under a 1980s law, to do so would force it to cut off the $1.55 billion in aid it sends Egypt each year, $1.3 billion of it to the military - a potential source of leverage, but one it has never publicly used, either in Mubarak’s era or since.

“This is an incredibly complex and difficult situation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said this week.

Just over a year earlier, after Mursi’s election, he said: “We congratulate the Egyptian people for this milestone in their transition to democracy,” and called on Mursi to ensure Egypt remains “a pillar of regional peace, security and stability.”

Festering resentment

At the Republic Guard compound in northeastern Cairo, where soldiers fired on Mursi supporters on Monday, killing at least 55, Hassan Ismael seemed to speak for many Islamist protesters.

“America needs to wake up and realize we are a Muslim country,” said the 52-year-old motorcycle mechanic, wearing along white tunic and clutching a pocket-sized Koran.

“We had a democratically elected Muslim government, and America let it fall to the bloodthirsty army.”

At the nearby Rabaa Adawiya mosque, where thousands of Brotherhood supporters have staged a vigil for the last 13 days, the heavily-bearded El-Sayyed Abdel Rabennabi was more succinct.

“Obama supports democracy, but only if it goes to those who aren’t Islamists,” the 41-year-old said.

The United States might expect to get a more sympathetic hearing among Mursi’s opponents.

But on Tahrir Square, the cradle of the youth-led movement that mobilized millions of Egyptians to rise up against Mursi, animosity appears, if anything, to be greater.

“America made an alliance with the Brotherhood against the Egyptian people,” said Tawfiq Munir, waving a placard reading “We are the coup” at one recent rally in Tahrir.

“Now the Brotherhood are fighting us in the streets, fighting to take back power, and America is sitting on the fence,” said the aircraft mechanic. “We ask for one thing from America: support the people, not the army, not the Brotherhood.”

“Obama Hands Off” reads a red poster featuring a portrait of the U.S. leader photoshopped with the style of heavy beard favored by ultra-conservative Islamists. “Obama supports the terrorists,” declares a banner strung between lamp posts.

Then and now

It all seemed so different in 2009. Then, early in his first term, Obama gave a speech in Cairo aimed at changing Middle Eastern perceptions of the United States shaped by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

He was greeted by calls of “We love you,” but optimism that relations with Washington might change faded fast. Egyptians, reflecting the view of people across the Arab world, complained that Obama’s policies remained skewed towards Israel.

Obama drew criticism for being slow to drop support for Mubarak during a revolt that was part of an explosion of unrest against entrenched rulers across the Arab world.

In 2012 people scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy during demonstrations sparked by a film that insulted the Prophet Mohammad, and tore down the American flag and burned it.

Last month, U.S. ambassador Patterson upset some Egyptians for criticizing planned mass protests that helped oust Mursi, saying that people should, instead, “get organized.”

A banner hanging at a traffic roundabout in downtown Cairo shows her photograph and the words: “Witch, go home!”

The Obama administration will not want to see ties with Egypt soured further. While its influence is limited, ties with the military are important given Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and the security cooperation Cairo provides.

Egypt, an Arab heavyweight with 84 million people, also borders the Gaza Strip and controls the Suez Canal, conduit for at least eight percent of the world’s seaborne trade.

Getting personal?

Egyptians have traditionally distinguished between American policies and American citizens.

On Sunday, some flag-waving supporters of the army take overbore a banner with a red “X” next to the words “Administration OBAMA” and green tick next to “U.S. People” and a red heart.

Americans said they still felt generally safe on the streets of Cairo, but that there were areas where attitudes appeared to have hardened, at least temporarily.

A U.S. journalist was stopped on Monday, when tensions were running high, by civilians at a makeshift checkpoint near the Egyptian Museum that adjoins Tahrir and is a tourist magnet.

The men demanded to know the nationality of the reporter, whom they assumed was foreign.

“Canadian,” he replied, and was let through.