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Editorial: Use U.S. military aid to Egypt as leverage

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second right, welcomes Egyptian

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second right, welcomes Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi for the opening session of the Nonaligned Movement, NAM, summit, in Tehran, Iran. (Aug. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

The killing of four Americans in Libya has riveted attention on that tumultuous Middle East democracy, but keeping Egypt as an ally is probably a more critical challenge for the United States.

Cairo is the site of continuing anti-American demonstrations that began Tuesday, when protesters breached the walls of the U.S. embassy and shredded an American flag. No Americans have died there, but the Egyptian government did not move forcefully to protect the embassy. And President Mohammed Morsi's statement in reaction to the violence was tepid and slow to come.

When it was finally released Wednesday -- a full day after the demonstrations began -- Morsi mildly rebuked the protesters and called on the United States to prosecute whoever made the anti-Islamic video that touched off the violence. The Muslim Brotherhood, which Morsi belonged to before his election in June, called for more protests.

Morsi issued a stronger statement Thursday, saying his government would not tolerate violence. But his weak initial response continues a worrisome pattern. In August he went to Iran for a summit of nonaligned nations. Soon after that, he made China his first official trip outside the region.

Egypt has been the linchpin of U.S. influence in the Arab world for decades, dating back at least to the Camp David peace accord it signed with Israel in 1979. As a result, Egypt receives $2 billion a year in U.S. aid. President Barack Obama was also a key, early supporter of Morsi's government. He urged the Egyptian military to step aside following elections in June, despite its long support of U.S. strategic interests.

Morsi, who has positioned himself as part of a mainstream Islamist party, should make it clear to his people that it is not in Egypt's interests to alienate the United States. And despite his domestic political concerns, he should act like he knows it, too. If Egypt's new government doesn't prove a reliable ally soon, the United States should use the aid it provides, and could withhold, as leverage to help Morsi realize the responsibilities of being a leader.

Absent any explicit threat to take away aid, Obama made that point Wednesday via his cool description of the state of relations between the two countries. "I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," he said. "They are a new government that is trying to find its way."

Unfortunately, this drama is playing out against the backdrop of growing troubles elsewhere in the region. Iran's unrelenting nuclear aspirations have led to talk of war and increased tensions between the United States and Israel over how best to counter the threat.

There were smaller, anti-American protests in Yemen, Iraq and Bangladesh in recent days, and rumors of additional protests across the region to come today. Obama ordered two U.S. warships to take up a position off the coast of Libya on Wednesday and dispatched U.S. Marines to secure American facilities amid suspicions that the attack on the embassy on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 may have been planned rather than spontaneous, as initially believed.

The United States needs a strong Arab partner in the Middle East and needs to know whether it will continue to be Egypt.