The latest news out of Egypt constitutes, at least on the surface, a setback for the Muslim Brotherhood’s drive to obtain a monopoly on power in the world’s most populous Arab country. An Egyptian court suspended the proceedings of a committee that was drafting a new constitution. Considering that the Muslim Brotherhood dominated the body working on the constitution, this represents a victory for the embattled secularists and religious minorities that view the group’s rise with alarm. But in doing so, the court flipped the timetable under which Egypt was supposed to move toward a new government. The president Egyptians elect next month will now come to office prior to the adoption of a new constitution.
That means that person will be vested with the same powers held by authoritarian dictator Hosni Mubarak, whose fall last year during the Arab Spring protests set in motion these events. Should the new president be the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater or that of one of the other Islamist parties, he won’t need to write a constitution to fit his whims, the new leader will be able to transform the country via executive fiat. In which case the Obama administration’s faltering attempts to portray the Brotherhood as moderates or to work with a military that is rapidly losing control of the situation will all have been in vain.
The absence of a new constitution will make the battle for the Egyptian presidency even more crucial for the future of the Middle East. But right now, it looks as if the Brotherhood is holding most of the cards. The popular candidate of its main Islamist rival may be disqualified. Former general Omar Suleiman, the army’s choice, may not get on the ballot. But even if he does, he will have little chance as he is associated with the brutality of the former regime as well as with its close ties with the United States.
The secular alternative, Amr Moussa, the favorite of many foreign observers, is finding himself boxed out by the rise of the Islamist parties. He’s also fending off the worst possible slur that can be suffered by an Egyptian politician: the charge that he has a Jewish relative. Moussa has fervently denied the accusation that he has a Jewish half-brother with Israeli citizenship as a scurrilous lie. Whether true or not, and it’s difficult to have sympathy for either side in that argument, the fact that this is the sort of thing Egyptians care about speaks volumes about a political environment in which extremist Islamists can be viewed by the Obama administration as “moderates.”
As previously reported, the administration recently entertained a Brotherhood delegation in the White House. As troubling as that development was, as Steve Emerson noted in his Investigative Project on Terrorism Website, it turns out that the welcome mat rolled out for the Brotherhood involved giving the members of the visiting group a pass on vetting for ties to terrorism or other crimes. As Emerson points out, the head of the Brotherhood delegation, Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, has been implicated in a U.S. investigation of a child pornography ring that relates to activities during a period when he lived in this country. But the State Department ensured Dardery was treated as a diplomat with blanket immunity from questioning or even inspection of his baggage or computers that is standard since 9/11 for visitors from Egypt.
The administration may think it can work with the Brotherhood, but if its presidential candidate obtains Mubarak-style powers, President Obama may find that a country that was once a key to stability in the Middle East will go completely off the tracks and take with it any vestige of American influence.