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Illusions About Egypt’s Islamist Future

We won’t know the outcome of the referendum on Egypt’s proposed new constitution that will strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on power until after next weekend’s second round of voting. But those betting on the Brotherhood not ensuring that there will be a majority for its confirmation or accepting a negative vote if one is allowed haven’t been paying much attention to the way the group operates or thinks. In the less than two years since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood has moved to seize total power, the latest move coming when President Mohamed Morsi effectively assumed powers comparable to those held by the now imprisoned dictator. Though there has been a courageous effort by the judiciary as well as groups of citizens to stop the Brotherhood, the Islamists have combined ruthless suppression of dissent—including killings of demonstrators that ought in principle to render Morsi vulnerable to the same charges that he is pressing against Mubarak—with a clever mobilization of party cadres to keep their opponents off balance and on the defensive.

This rapid and efficient consolidation of Islamist hegemony in Cairo took a lot of observers by surprise. Many of us had some hope that the Arab Spring would bring democracy to an Arab world where it is largely unknown. But by now only those unwilling to face reality are still pretending the Brotherhood are just a bunch of Muslim democrats. Not surprisingly, Tom Friedman, the New York Times op-ed page’s resident Middle East expert, is among that group. In a column that is obtuse even by his standards, Friedman speculates that it is just as likely that Egypt will wind up a functioning multi-ethnic democracy like India as a dysfunctional Islamic state like Pakistan. It says a lot about the Times these days that such a foolish and ignorant column is what passes for foreign policy expertise at the paper. But the real problem here is not just one more dumb Times column but the fact that Friedman’s rosy view of the Brotherhood’s democratic potential dovetails with the Obama administration’s ill conceived embrace of the Morsi government.

The obvious enormous differences between the culture and the nature of the Indian state and that of Egypt (which Friedman pays lip service to but then ignores) are so great as to make any discussion of the subject rather one-sided. Suffice it to say that even in the best case scenario for Egypt it will fall far short of India at its worst. But even if we leave this idiotic comparison aside, what has happened in Egypt in the past several months ought to have sobered up anyone still prepared to buy into the idea that the Arab Spring had anything to do with a movement for Arab democracy.

Those who blame President Obama for Mubarak’s fall are giving Washington too much credit. The old regime was doomed and no amount of American backing could have saved it. Where the Obama administration can be faulted is in its lack of interest in helping genuine Egyptian democrats during the president’s much-vaunted outreach to the Arab and Muslim world in his first year in office.

But having backed away from Mubarak, rather than seeking to strengthen the Egyptian military as the only bulwark against the Islamists, Obama did his best to undermine them. Since Morsi’s election, Washington has clearly sided with the Brotherhood and done virtually nothing to hold it accountable for its betrayal of the revolution that brought it to power.

Like Friedman, the State Department is also peddling sunshine about Morsi and the Brotherhood. The result is that instead of a friendly dictator who supports our interests and stability in the region, we now have an unfriendly government on Cairo that is allied with Hamas and opening lines of communication with Iran while still accepting billions in U.S. aid.

The outcome of the constitutional referendum may be foreordained, but it may be the last chance Egyptians will have to stop the imposition of Islamist rule. The opposition to the Brotherhood might have benefited from strong U.S. pressure on Morsi to back down on his putsch, but it never happened. Like Tom Friedman, the president and Secretary of State Clinton are still pretending that Islamism and democracy are compatible. They aren’t and that is a reality that will haunt American Middle East policy for decades to come. 



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