WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Thursday that a statement issued by the Egyptian presidency is welcome but not enough to ease concerns about anti-Jewish and anti-Israel comments that the Islamist president made before he took office.
The statement by President Mohammed Morsi's office rejects discrimination and incitement to violence based on religion. The State Department called it "an important first step" but said the U.S. continues to look for Morsi and other Egyptian leaders to demonstrate a commitment to religious tolerance and Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
The U.S. has said Morsi's 2010 remarks — in which he urged hatred of Jews and called Zionists "pigs" and "bloodsuckers" while he was a leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood — are "deeply offensive" and need to be repudiated.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland would not say if Washington is demanding that Morsi personally repudiate the remarks, but she made clear the U.S. needs to see more than the statement from his office to be convinced he no longer holds to the earlier views.
"From our perspective, that statement was an important first step to make clear that the type of offensive rhetoric that we saw in 2010 is not acceptable, not productive and shouldn't be part of a democratic Egypt," she told reporters. "That said, we look to President Morsi and Egyptian leaders to demonstrate in both word and in deed their commitment to religious tolerance and to upholding all of Egypt's international obligations."
On Wednesday, Morsi, Egypt's Islamist president, sought Wednesday to defuse Washington's anger over his past remarks, telling a group of visiting U.S. senators that his comments were taken out of context and were a denunciation of Israeli policies and not Israel itself or the Jewish people, according to a spokesman. The spokesman said Morsi told the lawmakers that a distinction must be made between the two.
Later Wednesday, after the State Department declined to comment on the spokesman's explanation, Morsi's office went further by releasing an English-language statement that said "the president strongly believes that we must respect and indeed celebrate our common humanity and does not accept or condone derogatory statements regarding any religious or ethnic group."
Nuland said Thursday that her comments applied to that statement and not the spokesman's remarks.
The flap is a new twist in Morsi's attempts to reconcile his background as a veteran of the Muslim Brotherhood — a vehemently anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. group — and the requirements of his role as head of state, which include keeping the strategic relationship with Washington, which wants Egypt to continue to honor its 1979 peace deal with Israel.
Morsi's criticized remarks came from a mix of speeches he made in 2010 when he was a leading Brotherhood figure. The remarks were revived when an Egyptian TV show aired them last week to highlight and mock Morsi's current policies.
In the video, Morsi refers to "Zionists" as "bloodsuckers who attack Palestinians" as well as "the descendants of apes and pigs." He says Egyptians should nurse their children on "hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews. They must be breast-fed hatred." He also calls President Barack Obama a liar.
Morsi has promised to abide by Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel and has continued security cooperation with Israel over the volatile Sinai Peninsula and their border. In November, Morsi brokered a truce between the Jewish state and Gaza's Hamas rulers in November, a feat that won him warm praise from the Americans.