A boy covers his face with a strip of cloth reading "Only the Messenger… (Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Reuters )
When President Obama tried to simultaneously disavow the anti-Muslim YouTube video that sparked widespread anti-American protests and defend freedom of speech at the United Nations last week, he ran headlong into the new governing principles of old allies like Egypt and Yemen.
The presidents of Egypt and Yemen denounced the protesters’ violence in speeches to the U.N. General Assembly. But they were equally fervent in defending the religious outrage behind them and challenging Obama’s fulsome view of free speech.
Juggling complicated coalitions and competing factions at home, both Muslim leaders made it clear that their brands of popularly chosen government do not look like the United States or share all of its values.
“We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural specifics and religious references and not seek to impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us,” Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told the U.N. gathering Wednesday.
Morsi, on the job three months, told the U.N. that the protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo reflected the legitimate, and decidedly Islamic, voice of Egyptian popular will. And he effectively told Obama he would have to get used to new rules.
“Insults against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, are not acceptable,” said Morsi, whose political roots lie in the Muslim Brotherhood. “We will not allow anyone to do this by word or by deed.”
In an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi sounded a similar note, saying freedom of speech does not constitute freedom to defame religious beliefs. “It should not be understood that freedom of expression is freedom of attacking others’ faith,” he said.
The cultural confrontation comes early in the U.S. relationship with a changed Middle East. Although billions of dollars in U.S. aid are still committed to Egypt, Libya and the other countries in the region, U.S. officials acknowledge that the money gives them less leverage than it once did.
The head of the House subcommittee that oversees foreign aid said Friday she was blocking $450 million in emergency U.S. assistance to Egypt sought by the administration. The decision by the subcommittee head, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.), to halt the funds adds to the delay in normalizing aid after protesters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier this month.
At the United Nations, Obama said freedom of speech is a bedrock American principle. The video was repugnant, he said, but the reaction to it wholly unjustified.
“There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents,” Obama said. “There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton picked up that theme Friday with remarks to nations pledged to support the popularly elected governments born of the Arab Spring.
“None of us can insulate ourselves from insult,” she said on the sidelines of the U.N. meeting. “In the time since I began speaking just minutes ago, more than 300 hours of video has been uploaded to YouTube. Some of it, no doubt, is vile. Some of it, no doubt, is offensive to my religion or yours. But we must not give these views power they do not deserve.”
In his remarks to the General Assembly, Yemen’s president turned the U.S. argument inside out with a demand for strict curbs on speech that insults religion.
“There should be limits for the freedom of expression,” Hadi said, “especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.”
The newly elected Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, vowed to crack down on Islamist extremists after they encouraged crowds to attack the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Tunis. Libyan President Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf promised similar steps against extremists in his country, where an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi led to the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
But it was Morsi who best symbolized how things have changed.
Morsi is a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political movement banned by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the longtime U.S. ally ousted last year as the biggest prize of anti-government protests in several Mideast nations.
U.S. relations with the former secular dictatorships were based on a hard-nosed preference for security and stability in a volatile region.
Obama abandoned decades of U.S. policy when he yanked U.S. support for Mubarak, and his administration moved quickly to support democratic movements in several Mideast nations.
But the U.S. emphasis on personal liberty and tolerance rings hollow to many Egyptians and others, who recall the former willingness of U.S. leaders to look the other way when grievous human rights abuses occurred.
Egypt’s secular pro-democratic opposition, with long ties to the United States, largely crumbled after the revolution. The well-organized Muslim Brotherhood, with practically no ties to a U.S. government, proved more sure-footed.