The victory of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi in the Egyptian presidential election has presented the United States with an interesting dilemma. After more than a year of vacillating between support for democratic change in the Arab world and a willingness to leave authoritarians in place, Morsi’s triumph represents what many in the Obama administration may think is a fresh opportunity to have an impact on the changing situation in the Middle East. They need to resist it.
As Jackson Diehl noted in today’s Washington Post, President Obama has much to answer for in the way his waffling between support for democracy and authoritarians contributed to the way the Arab Spring became a disaster for both the peoples of the Middle East and the United States: Though it is not likely that his enormous self-regard will allow him to accept that blame, there’s little doubt that the president wants very much to have an impact on events in Egypt and throughout the region even if he prefers to “lead from behind” in the tricky conflicts within each nation. It should be remembered that in May of 2011 he devoted most of a speech on the Middle East policy to his views on the Arab Spring, though it is best remembered for the closing section in which he ambushed Israel. The Arab world cared little for the president’s ineffectual and ultimately irrelevant views about their future, but what is most worrisome about the current situation is that the president may view Morsi’s election as a second chance to influence events in Egypt.
It was perhaps inevitable and perhaps even necessary for the United States to send its official congratulations to Morsi, but what follows now will be crucial to America’s chances of at least not worsening the situation in Egypt. But that is exactly what the president will do if he begins to act as if Morsi and the Brotherhood represent democratic legitimacy while the Egyptian army — their opponents in the struggle for power in Cairo — is a symbol of authoritarianism. Though the United States has good reason to think ill of the army’s strong-arm tactics and ought not to let itself be tainted by openly supporting these holdovers from the Mubarak era, it would be an even bigger mistake to act as if the Brotherhood is synonymous with democracy.
As the Bush administration learned when it attempted to foster Palestinian democracy, elections are meaningless if the only choices are corrupt authoritarians and Islamists. That is just as true today in Egypt when it comes to the military and the Muslim Brotherhood as it was for the Palestinians when their options were Fatah and Hamas. When those opposed to democracy win elections, the result is not democracy.
While the attempt to market the Brotherhood as moderates is meeting with some resistance in the West, it will be just as important for the administration not to get tricked into viewing Morsi as a free agent who can be peeled away from his party, as today’s New York Times dispatch from Cairo hinted. Morsi’s resignation from the group yesterday is meaningless. Any American wooing of this ideologue will only give his party undeserved credibility and make it even harder for either the military or the small groups of genuine Egyptian liberals to resist the Brotherhood’s first attempts to remake the nation in their own image.
The most dangerous aspect of this situation is the way a desire to entice Morsi to play ball with the West will appeal to President Obama’s ego. Obama has repeatedly shown he believes the power of his personality and the historic nature of his presidency can transcend all sorts of differences. That is why he finds Islamists like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan so appealing. He flatters himself that their curious friendship rises above the differences between American democracy and Erdoğan’s ideology.
Obama may believe he can use the $1 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt to romance Morsi into transforming the Brotherhood into a peaceful democratic movement, but this is as much of a delusion as any notion of reforming the army. As badly as the administration has messed up in the Middle East, the Morsi temptation is an opportunity for the president to make things a lot worse. Let’s hope his re-election campaign will act as deterrent to any new overtures to the Brotherhood.