Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has had quite a week. He helped broker a cease-fire between his Hamas ally and Israel to the acclaim of the international community as well as the United States and his new friend President Obama. He followed that triumph up by issuing new decrees that effectively give him dictatorial powers over Egypt. In less than year in office, Morsi has amassed as much power as Hosni Mubarak had in his time in office as the country’s strongman and he has done it while getting closer to the United States rather than having his Islamist regime being condemned or isolated by Washington.
The full implications of Morsi’s ascendency are not yet apparent. But we can draw a few rather obvious conclusions from these events. The first is this makes the region a much more dangerous place and peace even more unlikely. the second is that the much ballyhooed Arab Spring turned out to be an Islamist triumph, not an opening for democracy. And third, and perhaps most disconcerting for Americans, it looks like the Obama administration has shown itself again to be a band of hopeless amateurs when it comes to the Middle East. While President Obama shouldn’t be blamed for toppling Mubarak, this episode is more proof of the gap between his foreign policy instincts and a rational defense of American interests.
The first point to be made about the cheering for Morsi’s role in brokering the cease-fire is misplaced. It cannot be emphasized too much that the reason why Hamas felt so confident about picking a fight with Israel that it could not possibly win militarily is the fact that Egypt and fellow regional power Turkey were treating it as an ally rather than as terrorist regime that needed to be isolated and controlled. While Morsi has sought to exercise some influence over Gaza by keeping the border crossings to Sinai closed (more as a result of concern over the violence spilling over into Egyptian territory than a desire to restrain terrorism), the support for the legitimacy of the illegal Hamas regime on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood government has been a game changer.
More than ever before, Hamas now has the whip hand over the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority. That makes the already nearly non-existent chances of peace between Palestinians and Israelis even smaller. Though it can be argued that the ability of Hamas to preserve its rule over Gaza following the last bout of fighting with Israel in January 2009 already made it clear that it was a force to be reckoned with, the backing of Egypt and Turkey and the tacit approval of the United States in the cease-fire means there can be no doubt that Hamas truly is the face of Palestinian nationalism these days as well as the owners of an independent Palestinian state in all but name. With Cairo and Ankara backing them up and Iranian missiles in their arsenal, Hamas’s strength makes the standard liberal talking point about it being necessary for Israel to make more concessions to Fatah even more absurd than ever.
If the blockade of Gaza is now to be weakened even further to allow “construction materials” as well as the food and medicine that has never ceased flowing into the area from Israel, then it must be acknowledged that Hamas is more powerful than ever and well placed to make mischief in the region whenever it likes. Rather than applauding Morsi’s role in the cease-fire, Americans should be asking why the administration has acquiesced to having one of their nation’s primary aid recipients being an ally of Hamas. They should also be wondering about what exactly it is that passed between Obama and Morsi during their phone conversations and what promises, if any, were made by the United States about future pressure on Israel.
Morsi’s consolidation of dictatorial power also should not have taken Washington by surprise, as it seems to have done. For several months, the State Department has been acting as if it bought the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood government was basically moderate in nature and more interested in economic development than pursuing ideological goals. But Morsi’s actions, in which he has sidelined every competing power base that might have acted as a check on his ambitions, makes it apparent that his real purpose is to make his movement’s control of the country permanent. Any hope that democracy was coming to Egypt or the rest of the Arab and Muslim world was misplaced. And any idea that the United States can bribe Morsi or any other Islamist into playing ball is sheer folly.
That leads us to the final point about the administration’s utter lack of skill in dealing with the realities of the Middle East.
Even if we were to concede that the president’s motives were pure and that he wanted nothing more than to bring peace to the region and democracy to Arab nations that have never known it, virtually everything that the administration has done has made the achievement of these goals even less likely than before.
The president isn’t personally responsible for the collapse of an unsustainable Mubarak dictatorship. But he did nothing to aid the cause of the few Egyptian liberals who actually want democracy. Worse than that, he undercut the efforts of the Egyptian military to act as a brake on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of seeking to use the billions that Egypt gets from the U.S. as a lever with which he could restrain Cairo from backing Hamas and the Brotherhood from seizing more power, Washington has embraced Morsi. That emboldened Hamas and led to the recent fighting. Though the president said all the right things about backing Israel’s right to self-defense, his diplomatic maneuvering not only helped set the stage for more violence but made it more difficult for Israel to exercise that right.
A president who says he wants peace and democracy in the Middle East is now acting as if the Islamists that run Turkey and Egypt are his new best friends while continuing to treat the head of the only democracy in the region as a nuisance. In doing so, President Obama has helped make the world a lot more dangerous than it might otherwise have been.