By BRADLEY KLAPPER and JULIE PACE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States has been here before, praising an Egyptian leader for championing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts while expressing concern over his commitment to democracy at home. But with options limited, the Obama administration is keeping its faith in President Mohammed Morsi.
In a hectic week of Mideast unrest, Morsi emerged as America's key partner in working toward peace between the Jewish state and the Hamas leaders of the Gaza Strip, assuming a leadership role left vacant since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's ouster nearly two years ago.
After winning U.S. and worldwide praise, Morsi immediately cashed in on his new political capital by seizing more power at home.
His actions are the latest reminder that Washington can't be sure where its relationship will stand with the Arab world's most populous country as it transitions from decades of secular autocracy. It's moving to a more democratic government, but one that is less pro-American than its predecessors.
For now, the U.S. — as it did for years with Mubarak — wants to separate Morsi's domestic political maneuvers from his role as a Middle East mediator.
"We believe firmly that this needs to be resolved internally as part of a transition to democracy," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said of Morsi's new decrees, which place him above any kind of oversight, including that of the courts.
After dropping its allegiance to Mubarak in February 2011, the United States had hoped to create a new, more sustainable Egyptian alliance, structured on the legitimacy of a truly representative government. To get there, it had to work with a recalcitrant military leadership unsure about handing over power to popularly elected Islamists. It is now left trying to persuade Morsi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, to settle disputes with his opponents through negotiations.
But the U.S. isn't sure how hard to push, given the tangible if halting progress toward democracy Morsi has made. And it doesn't want to undercut the Egyptian leader after he challenged hardliners in his own country by committing to monitor weapon flows to Gaza and shepherd the fragile peace he secured between Hamas and Israel last week.
"Anytime you need a leader for external promises, the quid pro quo — admitted or not — is to back off on criticism of their domestic standing," said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's a foreign policy tightrope the Obama administration is going to have to learn how to walk."
The U.S. reaction is being closely watched internationally. Washington has a long history of making light criticism of Mubarak's human rights abuses at home while helping prop up his government with tens of billions of dollars in mainly military assistance.
Morsi last week granted himself near autocratic powers at least until a new constitution is adopted and parliamentary elections are held — a timeline that stretches to mid-2013. The Egyptian president says the moves are necessary to protect last year's revolution.
But the opposition says the moves neutralize the judiciary at a time when Morsi already holds executive and legislative powers. And in a show of opposition strength, more than 200,000 people flocked to Cairo's central Tahrir square on Tuesday, chanting against Morsi. "The people want to bring down the regime," they shouted.
Several U.S. officials said that Morsi's actions may not be as dangerous as they appear, citing the judiciary's ties to the old Mubarak government and its role in dissolving Egypt's first freely and fairly elected parliament earlier this year. They also praised him for opening a dialogue with opposition groups and judges about the changes.
"When confronted with concerns about the decree that he issued, President Morsi entered into discussions with the judiciary, with other stakeholders in Egypt," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. "That's a far cry from an autocrat just saying, 'My way or the highway.'"
Still, Morsi's timing has put the White House in an awkward position, the decrees coming just a day after Obama aides praised the Egyptian president as a pragmatic and effective peacemaker.