In Search of an Egypt Policy
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 23, 2013
There is near unanimity that the Obama administration's Middle East policy is in shambles. At the same time, there is little agreement on what went wrong.
If soft power or greater popularity for the United States were the criterion, then clearly President Obama's outreach to the Muslim world, highlighted by his 2009 Cairo speech, has failed. The United States is neither loved nor respected. Anti-Americanism is more popular than ever. "The one thing everybody in Egypt agrees about," writes Walter Russell Mead, "is that the Americans are about the most horrible people around – arrogant, stupid, judgmental, impractical, not to be trusted when the going gets tough. The liberals, the generals, the Mubarak family, the Christians, the Islamists: on this one point they all agree."
No less galling even the The New York Times and Washington Post have written obituaries for the administration's Middle East policy. The Times finds itself in an unlikely alliance with Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, not to mention a host of neo-conservatives, criticizing President Obama for not terminating $1.5 billion in American annual aid to Egypt in the wake of the military government's crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protestors, which has resulted in hundreds of casualties so far.
That aid, they note, did not give the administration sufficient influence to prevent the crackdown, which it earnestly opposed. And to continue to provide aid to a military government that ousted the duly elected president constitutes a betrayal of American principles.
THAT PARTICULAR CRITIQUE need little detain us. Democracy had no more future in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood than it did in Germany under Hitler, despite both having come to power in free elections. The Muslim Brotherhood spectacularly imploded in just over a year, after winning the presidential and parliamentary elections and gaining popular ratification of an Islamist constitution.
From the time of his election, President Mohamed Morsi focused not on Egypt's overwhelming economic problems – for which neither he nor anyone else has any short-term solution – but on consolidating Muslim Brotherhood control over all national institutions. By the time, the military moved in, 14 million people had taken to the streets of Cairo to protest against the government, and the Egyptian "liberals," who led the original Tahrir Square demonstrations, which brought down the government of Hosni Mubarak, were calling for the military to intervene.
Cambridge University's George Joffe summed up Morsi's year in office as follows: "It is difficult to imagine how anyone, given the opportunity of power, could in any circumstances have behaved as stupidly as they did. . . . They have no understanding whatsoever of the way democratic politics operates." Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics credits the Brotherhood with having "committed political suicide. It will take them decades to recover . . . because a significant number of Egyptians now distrust them."
The Muslim Brotherhood's lack of tolerance for minorities, long considered one of the hallmarks of a democratic society, is reflected in its instinctive reaction to last week's military crackdown. Brotherhood members turned their wrath on Egypt's Christian Copt population, burning 57 churches over a two-day period, and killing dozens. The silence of what was once referred to as the Christian West, in the face of the repeated persecution of Egyptian Copts, is another sad chapter in Western malfeasance.
NOR CAN OBAMA be blamed for the failuring to dissuade the Egyptian military from clearing away Muslim Brotherhood protestors, though a reported American plan for the Egyptian army and the Brotherhood to submit their grievances to mediation may win some kind of award for air-headedness. American leverage, in any event, was extremely limited. The billions in annual American aid pales next to the $12 billion aid package from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, who are bitterly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.
That Saudi aid package represents the only realistic way to feed Egypt's 86 million people, of whom half subsist on less than $1.65 per day, at present. Egypt currently imports half of its caloric intake. (That aid from Saudis and their friends helps ensure that the army will, in the short run, always be a better choice for the majority of Egyptians, whose primary concern is avoiding starvation.)
From the point of view of the military strongman General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the logic of the situation dictated that the Muslim Brotherhood protestors be cleared sooner than later. Al-Sisi, like most Arabs, is a firm believer in the preference of people for the "strong horse," famously articulated by Osama bin Laden. "The Middle East lacks the warm, fuzzy affection for the underdog that many Americans take to be second nature," writes Adam Garfinkle.
Al-Sisi knew that the Muslim Brotherhood was arming itself, in preparation for the army, as the dozens of policemen and soldiers killed in the fighting demonstrated. And he feared that the longer he waited the weaker he looked and the greater the eventual bloodshed. He hoped, writes Garfinkle, that a show of strength at the outset of what promises to be a long, drawn-out conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood would prevent civil war and massive domestic violence.
It remains to be seen whether Al-Sisi will succeed in that goal. As David Goldman points out, "There are numerous wars which do not end until all the young men who want to fight to the death have had the opportunity to do so." The American Civil War only ended when 30% of Southerners of military age were dead. Europeans on the eve of two suicidal wars that claimed tens of millions of lives enjoyed the highest living standards in the world. "The young men of the Middle East have less to lose than any generation in any country in modern times. As we observe in Syria, large numbers of them will fight to the death," Goldman notes tartly.
That will likely be the case in Egypt as well. No Egyptian government can hope for even the minimum success of feeding its people any time in the near future. And the Saudis and their friends will not pour $12 billion into the Egyptian economy forever in order to feed Egypt.
SO IF AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY is not to blame for the chaos in Egypt, or last week's bloodshed, and the decision not to immediately cut off aid to Egypt is unobjectionable, wherein lies the guilt. The answer lies in the misbegotten policy of believing that the Muslim Brotherhood represented a form of moderate Islam that could be housebroken by being permitted to participate and triumph in the electoral process.
From the beginning of his presidency, Obama's entire approach to the Mideast has been predicated on outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood, out of a professed belief, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it in congressional testimony in February 2011, that the Muslim Brotherhood is a "largely secular organization" with no "overarching agenda."
Thus, the Brotherhood, which was still officially banned in Egypt, was given front row seats to Obama's 2009 Cairo speech. The U.S. administration dropped long-time ally Hosni Mubarak like a hot potato, amidst demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and pushed the interim military leaders towards early elections, which only the Muslim Brotherhood, as the best organized group in the country, had a chance of winning.
The dean of Middle East scholars, Bernard Lewis, warned at the time, that those elections in a country in which the "language of Western democracy is for the most part . . . not intelligible to the great masses" would only dangerously aggravate the problems of Egypt: "The Western-style election . . . has no relevance at all to the situation in most Middle Eastern countries. It can only lead in one direction, as it did in [Weimar] Germany."
(Numerous commentators followed up on the connection to the failures of the Weimar Republic, which gave rise to Hitler's rise to power through the electoral process, to the current situation in Egypt. They noted that had the German army moved to oust Hitler, ym"sh, in 1933, despite his electoral triumph, the lives of six million Jews and tens millions of human beings would have been spared. And we can be fairly certain that there would never have been another election in Germany under Nazi rule.)
Not once did the Obama administration use the threat of a cut-off in aid to modulate Morsi's grab for pharaonic powers. When rioting broke out, the United States even sent the Muslim Brotherhood government riot control gear. One of Morsi's first acts as president was to call for the repatriation to Egypt of Sheikh Omad Abdel-Rahman, the blind imam behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. (The United States proved less amenable, however, to the release of those who plotted the murder of American citizens than it demands that Israel be.)
Nor was Morsi ever forced to publicly recant any of the things he said about Israel or Jews or peace with Israel as a presidential candidate. "We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and grandchildren on hatred for them – for Zionists, for Jews [whom he labeled descendants of monkeys and pigs]," he shouted at one campaign rally. At another, he called all the talk about a two-state solution and about peace "nothing but an illusion."
Some have argued that the optimism of the Obama administration about the so-called Arab Spring (long since turned into Arab Winter) and the alleged moderation of the Muslim Brotherhood's moderation and their sympathizer Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan (who currently holds more journalists in jail than are held in any other country in the world), owes to an engrained American belief in liberal democracy as the universal solvent.
But that explanation is only partial. The misreading of the Muslim Brotherhood is an exercise in willful blindness, of a refusal by products of America's elite universities to minimally inform themselves about the societies with which they were dealing. That blindness is of a piece with the government's description of the Ft. Hood massacre of 14 servicemen and civilians by an army doctor shouting Alla-hu Akbar as an act of "workplace violence" and the production of an 80-page government report on the massacre that manages to omit any mention of the perpetrator's radical Islamic beliefs.
Here is how the "largely secular" Muslim Brotherhood's leading spiritual authority Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi describes Islam: "Islam is a comprehensive school of thought, a creed, an ideology, and cannot be completely satisfied but by completely controlling society and directing all aspects of life . . ." The motto of this "largely secular" organization is: "Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest wish."
After the fall of Mubarak, President Obama tasked his foreign policy staff with studying more than 50 transitions in countries around the world for some idea of where Egypt might be headed. The most salient analogies they could find were South Korea, the Phillipines and Chile. In short, Islam was not a factor at all in their analysis.
One would guess that no one in the White House or State Department has read a single work of the leading thinkers of the Muslim Brotherhood or even Paul Berman's The Flight of the Intellectuals, which takes their writings as its subject. They appear to know nothing of the deep attraction of the founding Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Hassan al-Banna for fascism and its death cult. (The term Islamofascism is not just an insult, but a term of art.) To become a full brother in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood requires five to eight years of continual testing. That is typical of a religious cult, not a democratic political party.
AS THE MIDDLE EAST DESCENDS into ever greater levels of chaos, with at least three artificial states pieced together from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire on the verge of break up – Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq – and one, Libya, already disappeared in all but name, the task of American diplomacy will not be to shepherd Arab states towards American-style democracy, so much as to protect vital American interests and prevent these "failed states" from becoming launching pads for terrorism directed near and far.
The generals currently running Egypt may not be nice guys, and they are surely not incipient democrats, but they are a lot less likely to pursue a policy of spreading Islam worldwide than the Muslim Brotherhood. (The number of Egyptians headed to fight in Syria, with the encouragement of the Morsi government, was one of the factors that led the Egyptian military to throw out the Muslim Brotherhood.) In less than two months, the Egyptian military has clamped down hard – harder than the Israelis ever did – on the smuggling channels into and out of Gaza and taken the battle to Islamist terrorist groups previously operating freely in Sinai.
That alone shows that both the West (and Israel) have a dog in this fight.
Related Topics: American Government & Politics, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Islamofacism & Terrorism
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