WASHINGTON — With anti-U.S. protests spreading in the Arab world, President Barack Obama says the U.S. would not consider Egypt an ally, "but we don't consider them an enemy."
Obama said in an interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo that Egypt is a "new government that is trying to find its way." And he warned that if the Egyptian government takes actions showing "they're not taking responsibility," then it would "be a real big problem."
Administration officials later said the president was not trying to downgrade the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt. But the remark reflected some U.S. frustration that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi had not been vigorous enough in his response to a breach Tuesday of the U.S. embassy in Cairo by demonstrators protesting an anti-Muslim film.
Those protests continued to spread, with demonstrators storming the U.S. Embassy compound in Yemen's capital, Sanaa on Thursday. They were on the embassy's grounds but did not enter the building housing the offices. Demonstrators removed the embassy's sign on the outer wall and set tires ablaze. Once inside the compound, they brought down the U.S. flag and burned it.
The protest in Yemen came after the breach of the embassy in Cairo and after an armed assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans.
Yemen is home to al-Qaida's most active branch and the United States is the main foreign supporter of the Yemeni government's counterterrorism campaign. The government on Tuesday announced that al-Qaida's No. 2 leader in Yemen was killed in an apparent U.S. airstrike, a major blow to the terror network.
Two Obama administration officials said that Yemeni authorities were cooperating with the U.S. to maintain order and protect U.S. personnel. The officials spoke only on grounds of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about the situation amid rapidly unfolding events.
They also said the protests in Yemen appeared to be motivated by the film seen by Muslims of disparaging the Prophet Muhammad.
This is an observation that Obama officials did not make regarding the Benghazi attack. U.S. officials, working with the Libyan government, were examining whether the armed assault on the consulate in Libya was a planned and deliberate terrorist strike, and not the spontaneous reaction to the anti-Islam video.
In a statement, the Yemeni embassy in Washington condemned the attack on the Sanaa compound.
"Given recent regional events, earlier this morning, angry protestors have unfortunately flooded the security perimeter of the U.S. embassy in Sana'a, Yemen and breached the embassy's wall," the statement said. "Security services have quickly restored order to the Embassy's complex. Fortunately no casualties were reported from this chaotic incident. The government of Yemen will honor international obligations to ensure the safety of diplomats and will step up security presence around all foreign missions."
Obama's remark to Telemundo about Egypt initially appeared to alter a long-standing relationship between the two countries that dates back to 1989, when the United States and Egypt became "major non-NATO allies." But White House officials said that did not change the U.S. view of Egypt as a closer partner.
"'Ally' is a legal term of art," said Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council. "We don't have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt like we do with our NATO allies. But as the President has said, Egypt is long-standing and close partner of the United States, and we have built on that foundation by supporting Egypt's transition to democracy and working with the new government."
The White House said that Obama called the presidents of Libya and Egypt and urged them to continue working with the United States to ensure the safety of diplomatic personnel. He thanked Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf for his condolences over the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other State Department officers during an assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi Tuesday. The White House says the two leaders agreed to work together to bring the attackers to justice.
During a second call, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi promised that Egypt "would honor its obligation to ensure the safety of American personnel," the White House said.
Obama told Morsi that while "he rejects efforts to denigrate Islam ... there is never any justification for violence against innocents."
Associated Press reporter Ken Thomas contributed to this story.