WASHINGTON — Her image has been plastered on banners in Tahrir Square, crossed out with a blood-red X or distorted and smeared with insults. She is too cozy with Egypt’s deposed president and the Muslim Brotherhood, the signs say, and should leave the country.
Anne W. Patterson, a press-shy career diplomat who has been the US ambassador in Cairo since 2011, suddenly finds herself a target in a dangerous political upheaval, a symbol for angry young Egyptians of America’s role in their country’s affairs.
With the Egyptian military ousting President Mohammed Morsi on Wednesday, Patterson will have to navigate a perilous course between Morsi’s opponents and his enraged Islamist supporters, both of whom have grievances with the United States. That she has become such a lightning rod for US policy speaks to the legacy of US involvement in Egypt and to the comparatively low level of attention Egypt has received from the Obama administration since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 — at least until this week’s turmoil.
As her bosses in Washington struggle to exert even modest influence over the events in Cairo, Patterson, 63, has been portrayed as a sinister force by protesters and supporters of the government, a defender of the status quo as well as a troublemaker who schemes with the opposition.
“She’s being lambasted because she’s the face of America,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official who worked with Patterson when she was ambassador to Pakistan. “But the fact that she’s being excoriated instead of the president only represents the fact that the rest of the American administration is absent.”
In his first reaction to Morsi’s ouster, Obama warned of the dangers of violence and tried to steer Egypt’s military toward a prompt resumption of democratic rule. But the flurry of meetings and phone calls Wednesday served to underscore the lack of leverage the United States has over Egypt.
Patterson’s problems started on June 18, when she was invited, at a time of mushrooming demonstrations against Morsi’s government, to speak to an audience in Cairo about the US relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.
While the United States supported Egypt’s democratic development, it still had to deal with those in power, Patterson said, adding, “I don’t think the elected nature of this government is seriously in doubt.”
Even as Patterson sought to distance the United States from the Muslim Brotherhood, those words marked her as an enemy of the crowds in Tahrir Square, reviving memories of Obama’s early reluctance to cut loose Mubarak, a longtime US ally.
“She manipulates people and secretly governs the country,” Mona Mohammed, 52, a bank employee said of Patterson at an antigovernment rally.
“The ambassador is part of a conspiracy against Egypt and its people,” Mohammed added.
At a pro-Morsi demonstration across town, Mohammed Amr-Alla, a professor at Al-Azhar University, said: “The ambassador meets with the opposition and supports them. She should not interfere. She needs to watch from a distance.”