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Why Is Obama Clinging to the Brotherhood?

While Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was in Germany today hoping to attract European investors to put their money in his country, the situation in many cities throughout the most populous Arab country continued to deteriorate. Violence continued, not only in the area around Cairo’s Tahrir Square where the demonstrations that toppled Hosni Mubarak started two years ago, but also in cities along the Suez Canal. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei called upon Morsi to hold a national dialogue and to form a government of national unity, but there is no indication that the Muslim Brotherhood leader will budge from his determination to hold onto total power.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration, which has been bragging to the press about Egypt being one of its foreign policy accomplishments, is standing aloof from a situation that the head of the Egyptian military said had brought the country to the edge of collapse. While the president may pride himself for helping to hasten the end of the Mubarak dictatorship and pressured the country’s military not to interfere with the Brotherhood’s drive to take control of the country, he seemed to have gone silent just at the moment when the secular opposition there needs him to speak up. Why?

The answer appears to be rooted in the administration’s acceptance of several myths about the Brotherhood and Egypt that led it to do nothing to try and stop the Islamist group’s rise and now leads it to conclude that the U.S. has no choice but to continue to embrace Morsi and his party. But as Eric Trager writes today in Foreign Policy in an authoritative takedown of those myths, Obama’s policy on the Brotherhood has always been based on a few terrible misconceptions.

As Trager writes, American apologists for the Brotherhood have consistently argued that it was democratic in nature; its religious nature was morally equivalent to American evangelicals rather than Iran’s Islamist rulers; they were supporters of the peace treaty with Israel; and their position was so strong that they couldn’t lose in any power struggle. All these beliefs, apparently shared by the president and much of his foreign policy team, were dead wrong.

From its start, the Brotherhood’s goal was Leninist in nature, not democratic. They are uninterested in cooperating with other groups or accepting checks and balances on their power because their goal is to create an Islamist state, not to fulfill the hopes of many Egyptians about replacing Mubarak with a genuine democracy.

As for the soft-soap the Brotherhood sold to liberal columnists like those at the New York Times about the group being essentially moderate in nature and uninterested in forcing their beliefs on the country, that was always pure bunk. The group has, from its inception to the current day, been a totalitarian movement that sought to control the lives of its members and hopes to extend their grip to all of Egyptian society. As Trager notes, the only proper analogy to them is the Bolshevik movement, not a democratic American movement.

The talk about the Brotherhood seeking to make Egypt’s free market blossom was equally foolish. While, as Trager notes, it has the support of many rich Egyptians, its purpose remains the accumulation of power on the part of the government, not capitalism. Morsi may talk a good game about business development, especially when he’s in front of Western audiences and investors, but the reality of Brotherhood Egypt is one in which the big Islamist brother is the only winner in the marketplace, not free enterprise.

Nor will it ever accept the peace treaty with Israel. The only thing stopping them from scrapping the treaty is the certainty that doing so will cost them the $1 billion a year they get from the United States. But they will do everything short of actually breaking the pact or starting a war to end normal relations with the Jewish state. As Morsi has demonstrated, hatred for Israel and Jews is at the core of the Brotherhood’s ideology.

Trager, who has worked in Egypt studying the opposition to Mubarak as well as what followed, is most persuasive when he points out that Washington’s belief that they have no alternative but to deal with the Brotherhood is as foolish as the other myths about the country:

Yet the lesson of the Arab Spring is that what appears to be stable at one moment can be toppled at another — especially if people are frustrated enough with the status quo. The conditions that sparked Egypt’s 2011 uprising have only worsened in the past two years: The country’s declining economy has intensified popular frustrations, and the constant labor strikes and street-closing protests indicate that the Brotherhood’s rule is far less stable than it might appear on the surface. Meanwhile, Morsi’s dictatorial maneuvers have forced an anti-Brotherhood opposition to form much more quickly than previously imagined.

The situation in Cairo is by no means as certain as the State Department appears to think it is. Having toppled one dictator, Egyptians may well decide to overthrow another–especially if they conclude, as they should, that they have only worsened their lives by allowing the Islamists to attain power. At the very least, the U.S. ought not to be putting all its eggs in the Brotherhood basket as events unfold. But that is exactly what Obama has done in the past few months.

Allowing a key strategic country and onetime ally like Egypt to fall into the hands of an Islamist group is a disaster for American foreign policy. It is not too late for the president to begin rectifying his mistakes by cutting loose the Brotherhood at a moment when it is starting to weaken. If he doesn’t speak out now, it is fair to ask why this president seems willing to tolerate an unfriendly Islamist tyrant when he was so determined to unseat Mubarak.