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U.S. Priority Should Be Stopping Egyptian Radicals

I rarely find myself in disagreement on foreign policy with the Washington Post’s editorial page, which under the leadership of editor Fred Hiatt and deputy editor Jackson Diehl (a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year) has been a leading voice championing Arab democrats long before it was fashionable to do so—and championing a muscular American foreign policy long after it was fashionable to do so, at least in the progressive salons of Washington. But I would register a slight disagreement with the Post editorial today regarding aid to Egypt.

I agree completely with the main thrust of their argument, that the U.S. should do more to aid Egypt in a difficult transition period. Where I disagree, slightly, is in their contention that “the main U.S. effort should be centered on helping Egypt revive its fragile economy.” They suggest a debt forgiveness program conditioned on “Egypt’s implementation of sensible free-market economic policies.” That’s fine as far as it goes, and there is no doubt that in the long-term economic development is important to Egypt’s future. But in the short term there is a battle for Egypt’s soul going on between Islamists and secularists, and no infusion of economic aid will make much difference.

We need to do something to avert the possible scenario that Gideon Rachman warns of in the Financial Times:

By some reckonings [Salafists] could get 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections planned for September.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the more established and less fundamentalist Islamist organisation, is generally reckoned to be good for at least a third of the vote. Add in a couple of fringe Islamist parties and you could be looking at an Islamist majority in Egypt’s first parliament.

Perhaps that’s overly alarmist; but maybe not. As Rachman notes, the Muslim Brotherhood is well-organized; the liberal, secular opposition isn’t. Where will the moderates find the support needed to organize and fast? Not from Iran. Not from Saudi Arabia. The only plausible sources are Western Europe and the United States.

The U.S. intelligence budget is currently around $80 billion. Imagine how much of a difference a few stray billions could make in Egypt and other countries across the Middle East where moderate forces are mobilizing to fight for control of their societies against the radical Islamists. Yes there is a risk of a backlash if moderate parties are seen as American stooges—a danger that the Post editors rightly note. But their opponents will make those accusations no matter what. At this point I believe the greater danger is that we will sit on the sidelines and let a once-in-lifetime chance to transform the Middle East for the better slip by.


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