A Yemeni burns a mock U.S. flag as hundreds attack the American Embassy in… (Yahya Arhab / European Pressphoto…)
WASHINGTON — The cascade of anti-American protests in the Middle East this week is a jolting reminder to the White House of a dangerous dimension of the "Arab Spring" revolutions: Freedom for long-suppressed Islamist groups that weak elected governments can't manage and that America can't control.
Although President Obama welcomed the uprisings that toppled authoritarian leaders like dominoes last year, attacks on U.S. missions and other protests across the Middle East and North Africa have created a deepening crisis in Washington as White House aides struggle to protect U.S. diplomats abroad, ease regional tensions and recalibrate American interests.
Violence flared again Thursday when hundreds of protesters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, Egyptian crowds scuffled with police firing tear gas, and demonstrations erupted in Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia. In Libya, police reportedly made several arrests for the assault that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans late Tuesday.
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The challenge of the abrupt upheaval was clear from comments in which Obama appeared to reclassify America's view of Egypt, which is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid and has long been seen in Washington as a linchpin of peace in the Middle East.
"I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," Obama told the Spanish-language network Telemundo on Wednesday. He called the relationship with Cairo "still a work in progress."
On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney downplayed those remarks. He said Obama was speaking in "diplomatic and legal terms" and that U.S. policy toward the Arab world's most populous nation had not changed.
"'Ally' is a legal term of art," Carney said during a campaign stop in Golden, Colo. "We do not have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt, like we do, for example, 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 in supporting Egypt's transition to democracy and working with the new government."
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The State Department said Thursday that Egypt is still designated a major non-NATO ally, as it has been for three decades.
Friend or foe, Egypt's newly installed Islamist government did little to stop protesters who swarmed over the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday and tore down an American flag.
President Mohamed Morsi annoyed the White House when he limited his initial comments to condemning a video that mocks the prophet Muhammad and that supposedly incited the riots. On Thursday, after speaking to Obama on the phone, Morsi finally condemned the attack on the embassy.
Obama had kinder words for Libya's government, whose forces helped fight scores of heavily armed militants who stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, killing the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three others.
Administration officials said they hope the violence has peaked, and that clerics at Friday prayers in Cairo and elsewhere in the Muslim world don't use the controversial video to stoke more bloodshed.
In Egypt and other countries where poverty and dissatisfaction are rife, the riots may ease domestic pressure on leaders struggling to gain their footing. Washington has limited ability to change that dynamic, and declining expectations that the emerging governments will embrace Western values.
"It looks like that's not going to happen soon, and that puts at risk some of America's most important relationships," said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat in the Middle East.
"It is going to be a real challenge figuring out how to deal with Islamist movements that are based on popular will, in a region where America is inherently unpopular," said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. "It's not going to be possible to change this with the right tweet from the embassy, although there are people trying to do that every day."
The unrest could affect U.S. policy toward Syria, where President Bashar Assad has sent tanks, warplanes and troops to crush an armed popular revolt, causing an estimated 20,000 deaths so far.
The White House has refused to send weapons to the Syrian rebels, fearful that some fighters have ties to Al Qaeda or other militant groups. Some critics argue the opposite, saying Washington should back the opposition to guard against extremists from taking control. The events this week provide ammunition to both sides.