CAIRO — At first glance, Egyptian president-elect Mohamed Morsi might appear like a nightmare for Washington’s interests in the region. The low-key Islamist has spoken vitriolically about American policy in the Middle East, refers to Israelis as “tyrants” and has expressed doubts that the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by terrorists.
And yet, U.S. officials and analysts express guarded optimism that Washington can build a strong working relationship with the veteran Muslim Brotherhood politician, whose victory was confirmed Sunday. Morsi and his aides say that they, too, are upbeat about the future of Egypt’s relationship with the United States, though not without caveats.
Much of the hope is based on pragmatism: At least in the immediate future, any ideological objections to U.S. policy are likely to take a back seat to Morsi’s need to stabilize Egypt and improve its floundering economy — both of which will require help from Washington, analysts say.
“The U.S. will have leverage with the Brotherhood because the Brotherhood needs the U.S. and Europe for Egypt’s long-term economic recovery,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center who has met with Morsi and several Brotherhood leaders in recent months. “They are going to need billions of dollars in loans and investments if they want to turn around their economy.”
Morsi spokesman and adviser Gehad Haddad said the incoming president, who earned a PhD in Southern California during the 1970s, has begun to build healthy relationships with U.S. officials.
“We expect and will work towards a strong strategic relationship” with Washington, Haddad said in an interview Monday. “It will help to bridge the gap between how both populations view each other.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland echoed that sentiment, telling reporters Monday: “We look forward to working with the government on issues that it’s going to need to confront.”
Still, questions remain about Morsi’s long-term dependability as a U.S. ally.
Key among them are the extent of his powers — which Egypt’s ruling generals recently curbed — and the degree to which he will be beholden to the Brotherhood’s secretive leaders.
“Is Mohamed Morsi the president of Egypt, or does the Muslim Brotherhood hold the presidency,” asked Tarek Masoud, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University who has met Morsi several times.
Mohammed Habib, a former deputy chairman of the Brotherhood who has broken ranks with the group, said Morsi will probably try to establish a relationship of equals with Washington.
“Egyptian decisions will not be left up to the American administration, as the deposed president agreed to before,” Habib said, referring to ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.
U.S. officials hope to make a strong impression on Morsi, 60, during an upcoming visit by a senior American official to Cairo, said another senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak for the record.
U.S. officials say they hope to use hundreds of millions of dollars in unspent American aid earmarked for Egypt as a tool to boost their leverage and build trust with a Morsi administration by finding areas of common interest.
Those efforts are seen as imperative to safeguarding Egypt’s decades-old peace treaty with Israel. In an interview with The Washington Post in February 2011, when Morsi was the head of the Brotherhood’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party, he said upending the treaty was not a priority. But he described the status quo of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as unacceptable.
“You cannot talk about a country with 5 million refugees,” he said at the time, calling Israelis “tyrants” who have been protected by the United States for too long.
Haddad, his spokesman, said Monday that “we will not be the party that breaks this treaty.” But he added that Egyptians would see “very swift” and significant changes in the country’s policy toward Israel. Haddad said these will include more vocal support for Palestinian statehood and a meaningful lifting of the blockade on goods passing through the Rafah crossing, which serves as the main gateway between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory ruled by the militant group Hamas.
Morsi has at times dabbled in conspiracy theories: When discussing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he was incredulous that a plane could “hit the tower like a knife in butter” and suggested that “something must have happened from inside,” according to a conversation that Hamid, the analyst, recounted in a recent article published in Foreign Policy magazine.
One issue that U.S. officials are likely to want to tackle quickly in their talks with Morsi is the future of American aid for civil society and other pro-democracy organizations. That type of assistance came to a virtual standstill this year as the Egyptian government criminally charged several Americans and Egyptians employed by pro-democracy groups and shut down their offices. U.S. officials are nervously watching whether Faiza Abou el-Naga, the minister who coordinates international aid and was the architect of the crackdown, remains in the new government.
Haddad said Morsi has not made decisions about his cabinet, but the spokesman suggested that Naga’s days in government could be numbered.
“Faiza has been a symbol of the Mubarak regime in every way we hate,” Haddad said.
The extent to which Morsi might seek to tilt the country’s social mores to fit the Brotherhood’s conservative principles also looms large for U.S. policymakers. In the interview last year, Morsi said steering Egypt in a more overtly religious direction was far from a priority, suggesting that his party was inclined to take a live-and-let-live approach.
Asked about his views on the United States, Morsi said he had great admiration for Americans, their work ethic and their institutions. But he had harsh words for U.S. policy in the region. American officials, he said, “are buying the hatred of people in this area with taxpayers’ money.”
President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, during which he sought to boost the U.S. image in the Arab world, included “very nice words,” Morsi said. “But none of them have been applied.”
Earning a doctorate in engineering at the University of Southern California during the late 1970s gave Morsi an intimate and extended look at the United States. Two of his sons were born during that time.
Farghalli A. Mohamed, an Egyptian-born engineering professor who taught Morsi, described him as a quiet, humble and hardworking student who was moderately religious.
“I see a lot of students who are outspoken, participate in student organizations, students who I can see signs that they’re going to play leadership roles,” Mohamed said Monday in a phone interview. “I didn’t see any of those signs with him.”
Morsi didn’t have a beard at the time and, unlike other Muslim students at the school, was not known to be a vocal critic of American values. That’s why, Mohamed said, he was shocked when he learned of Morsi becoming a senior leader in the Brotherhood.
“As an Egyptian, I hope that he succeeds in his mission,” Mohamed said. “His mission is very difficult. He has to unite the people. The vote was very close. The country is divided. I hope he forgets about his affiliation and thinks about the greater good.”
Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.