US President Barack Obama today said his administration's relationship with the young Egyptian government is "a work in progress," adding that their response to the attack on the US embassy in Libya will be closely watched, according to a Telemundo interview aired on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow" show (video below).
The comments came ahead of confirmation by a federal official that the person behind the anti-Islam "Innocence of Muslim" film that appeared to have triggered protests in Egypt and around the world may be an Egyptian Copt working in California. Earlier reports said he was Jewish.
"I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," Obama said of the young government in Cairo, telling Telemundo he's waiting to "see how they respond to this incident, for example."
With Egypt ranking among the United States' major non-NATO allies for over two decades, the comment has so confused the foreign policy community that it has required clarification from the White House.
"I think folks are reading way too much into this," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told Foreign Policy's The Cable today. "‘Ally' is a legal term of art," he said, later adding, "Egypt is longstanding and close partner of the United States."
Unnamed administration sources, however, told The Cable that the question from Telemundo wasn't expected and a response hadn't been prepared ahead of time, leading to speculation that Obama's response revealed more honest positioning on the part of the White House.
It also heightens suspicion that President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has failed to impress Washington with his belated reaction to the tragedy, said the New York Times and interviews by The Cable.
More from GlobalPost: Clinton: anti-Islam video is 'disgusting’ but does not justify violence
The White House today said Obama phoned Morsi after Tuesday's attack and emphasized that Egypt, which the US provides with some $2 billion in annual military said, needs to demonstrate its "commitment" to securing US facilities there — a conversation The New York Times said appeared markedly less warm than his exchange with the Libyan leader. Protesters ripped down the American flag at the US embassy in Cairo in a Tuesday protest against the anti-Islam film said to have been promoted by the extremist Christian pastor Terry Jones.
Morsi appears caught between domestic pressure exerted by his Muslim Brotherhood backers — a group that has meanwhile been calling for fresh demonstrations against the controversial movie — and attempts to respond adequately to US expectations.
More from GlobalPost: A clash of civilizations? Not so much
The "Innocence of Muslims" has enraged groups like the Muslim Brotherhood due to its open mockery of Muslim values (trailer here), but the person responsible for it until recently remained a mystery (and the full-length film itself may not even exist).
On Thursday, a federal official told the Associated Press that the individual is a California-based Egyptian Coptic Christian by the name of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, whose address appeared to be suspiciously close to that of the alleged director "Sam Bacile." (One of the actresses in the film told Gawker that "Bacile" described himself to her as Egyptian and spoke Arabic on set.)
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out that — whoever's responsible — those behind the whole mess really know how to play one side against the other by raising the specter of an Israeli-made anti-Islam film in the Middle East, where the Israeli issue is a sensitive one.
The description may have been an attempt to further enflame protest activity (and possibly help further obscure the real story).
Tuesday's attack came on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US. Here's more from Obama on US relations with Egypt in light of the event: