The Muslim Brotherhood appears to be on its way to an election victory and majority representation in Egypt’s parliament, a body which will have as its primary task the drafting of a new constitution for the most populous Arab country. This has created much concern in Israel, and not without reason. Many Israelis and some Americans criticize the American willingness to allow Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to fall. While the United States cannot afford to be seen to abandon allies in the manner that Jimmy Carter cast aside the Shah, the analogy does not hold with Mubarak. Mubarak might not have been the Muslim Brotherhood, but he was hardly the staunch ally that hagiographers depict. In 2009, Egypt voted with the United States at the United Nations with less frequency than did Burma, Cuba, Somalia, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. Mubarak undercut the new Iraqi government after 2003, and while he kept the Suez Canal open, this had everything to do with Cairo’s self-interest and little to do with winning Washington’s favor. Certainly, Mubarak maintained Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, but that was an event which predated Mubarak. Regardless, octogenarian dictators are seldom stable pillars upon which to ensure lasting security.
Would we be better off had we sought pre-emptive reform in Egypt? Certainly, as more liberal parties might have been better organized. President George W. Bush might have been sincere in his freedom agenda rhetoric, but either National Security Advisor turned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice never believed it, or she was simply too unskilled to enforce the policy against a recalcitrant diplomatic corps. Sending ambassadors like Frank Ricciardone to Egypt was hemlock for reformers.
If the Muslim Brotherhood cancels the peace treaty, that will be tragic, as it will signal both the waste of billions of U.S. aid money on Egypt, and send a lesson long understood by Israel’s Arab antagonists but which has bypassed Israeli doves: the land-for-peace formula is a failure because the vast majority of Arab citizens are unwilling to recognize Israel regardless of any papers signed by their governments. Perhaps had Western diplomats not turned a blind eye toward Arab incitement, there would be more fertile ground for peace. But we do not live in that fantasy world.
Still, a Muslim Brotherhood victory is not, itself, the end of the world unless the Muslim Brotherhood simply dispenses with checks and balances which underlie democracy. Alas, we might have leveraged our aid to encourage an electoral system in Egypt that would have favored the secularists. Still, when the Muslim Brotherhood swept Jordanian elections years ago, it was not the end of the world: They simply embarrassed themselves, focusing on such things as banning fathers from watching their daughters’ gymnastics competitions—and were decimated in the following elections.
Here’s the danger: Populism is rife in Egypt. Egyptians associate the economic reforms of the Mubarak era with corruption. After all, privatization meant to most Egyptians selling off a state-owned industry to Mubarak’s son or some other crony. Both Islamists and their more liberal counterparts have bent over backwards to embrace illiberal economic formulas. Most Egyptians believe the state should guarantee jobs, housing, education, and prices in the market. This of course is a formula for economic implosion. The real question will then be not how much Islamists win in this vote, but what will happen in the next election after Egyptians get a real taste of poverty. Of course, should the Egyptian economy collapse on the Muslim Brotherhood’s watch, they might provoke an international crisis in order to distract citizens with the nationalist card. The danger is not now; it is two years from now. In order to avert the worst case scenario, the questions for American policymakers should not only be how to respond to this election, but also how to ensure the next one.