Let us begin by acknowledging that Mohammad Mursi and Mitt Romney occupy very different places on the power spectrum. Romney merely hopes to become a president. Mursi already is one.
Each politician, however, is being watched closely — both within their respective countries and by the outside world. Each is still trying to convince doubters that he is up to the job. Last week, each found his leadership tested in a crucial, yet predictable, way and each, in turn, failed that test.
When violence broke out in front of the American Embassy in Cairo and, far more lethally, its Consulate in Benghazi, the correct path for Romney was clear: Express concern and remind reporters pushing for a reaction that it would be inappropriate to comment on a delicate, still unfolding, foreign crisis. It’s not that criticising a sitting president on his handling of overseas troubles is bad, but timing does matter.
Instead, he rushed out a highly critical statement about the Barack Obama administration’s handling of events, even as these were still unfolding. When the statement proved to be wrong about numerous things, Romney refused to retract it and, instead, repeated his false accusations.
Throughout the crisis, it appeared that Romney was thinking only about the immediate news cycle and the opportunity it offered for scoring points on Obama. That he appeared petty and decidedly unpresidential appeared not to cross his mind.
What made it worse was that it was all so predictable. Foreign crises happen often enough that any sensible opposition presidential candidate needs to be prepared to react to them and the script (offer vague support now, criticise once the storm has passed) is a well-established part of US politics.
To be clear: I am not saying that Obama’s handling of last week’s events is beyond criticism; merely that, as a political matter, challengers ought to withhold their criticism until after a foreign crisis has passed. Their ability to do so is an important test of whether they possess the temperament and maturity that the presidency requires.
That now brings us to Mursi.
Like challengers seeking to replace incumbents, representatives of long-repressed political movements, suddenly thrust into power, bear some special burdens. They need to demonstrate to the wider world that they are aware of the rules governing relations among nations and are willing to abide by them.
This is not an indictment of Islamists or the Muslim Brotherhood per se. Evo Morales’ peasant-based political movement faced many of the same questions when it took power in Bolivia in 2006. So did Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in 1994.
Obviously, Mursi’s first concern is Egypt. At home, he must work to keep his promises to voters while facing political challenges from a military he does not really control and from Salafists who, unburdened by the responsibilities of government, have little to lose by embarrassing him.
Still, as Egypt’s first elected leader, Mursi also needs to prove to the wider world that he understands the obligations of office and takes them seriously.
This goes beyond protecting embassies (as important as that is). It is about building and maintaining credibility. Mursi’s worst moment last week came when his subordinates were caught tweeting words of reassurance to the Americans in English while using the Brotherhood’s Arabic twitter feed to encourage more protests in front of the US Embassy.
Just as Romney should have anticipated that a foreign crisis would test his ability to demonstrate statesmanlike restraint, so Mursi should have foreseen that violence on Cairo’s streets would, sooner or later, test his resolve. Since Hosni Mubarak’s fall, there have been several outbursts of popular anger directed at embassies and foreign businesses in Cairo. Some of these have been stoked by people who also support Mursi. It was inevitable that this would happen again and, in the process, that Mursi’s willingness to enforce international norms, even against his own supporters, would be tested.
Later this month, Mursi is expected in New York where he will address the United Nations, meet Obama and in many ways will be out on the international stage. His main task will be to put the international community at ease, convincing a sometimes sceptical world that Egypt is a safe place to visit and invest and that its government is a good credit risk. If his actions clash with his words that will be a very hard-sell indeed.
Romney is still trying to make the sale with American voters. Having won over voters at home, Mursi now needs to sell himself and his government to the international community. Both tasks require a kind of leadership neither man displayed last week. Undoing that damage is not impossible, but through action and inaction Romney and Mursi have made their own jobs noticeably harder.
Gordon Robison, a long-time Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.