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No, Egypt’s Generals Don’t Cause Terrorism

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, dedicates his monthly Washington Post column to argue that Egypt’s provisional government does not deserve U.S. support. He begins:

One wonders how much further the United States will allow itself to be dragged down into the deepening abyss that is today’s Egypt. Those in the Obama administration and Congress who favor continued U.S. military aid to the dictatorship in Cairo insist that although such aid may run counter to American ideals, it does serve American interests. I would argue the contrary, that American interests are being harmed every day that support continues.

Far from aiding the United States in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists. Whatever one thought of the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and there was much to criticize, it came to office by fair and legitimate electoral means, just as U.S. policy had demanded, and it was headed toward a second election that it probably would have lost.

Alas, while his argument is powerful, it is also based on several faulty assumptions. Underlying his argument is the assumption that the motivation for terrorism lies in grievance, not ideology. That may be comforting to many diplomats because it leads to the idea that if diplomats only address those grievances, terrorism will fade away. However, it completely ignores the ideological component of Islamist terrorism fully embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a topic which I touched upon for this COMMENTARY article a couple years back.

To follow Kagan’s logic, and admittedly, that of many others whom I admire—that the United States should have simply let the Morsi government hang the Muslim Brotherhood with a rope its leadership provided—is optimistic, for it assumes that Morsi was committed to the electoral process. In this regard, Kagan is more optimistic than tens of millions of Egyptians listening to Morsi in Arabic, living under Muslim Brotherhood rule and, frankly, millions of one-time Morsi supporters who recognized that rhetoric aside, Morsi was unrepentant and unreformed.

If the Muslim Brotherhood would have held elections under the narrow and bigoted constitution they rammed through, they likely would not have entertained a wider stable of candidates than those able to run in the Islamic Republic of Iran after that theocracy’s unelected Guardian Council got through with its vetting. It is true that the Egyptian counter-revolution rejected the established electoral calendar, much as did almost every Arab Spring uprising in the first place, revolutions that Kagan (and I) both embraced.

Nor does the “product of society” argument hold much water. To imply as, unfortunately Kagan does, that it is understandable that some Egyptians will turn to terrorism as a result of last summer’s events is to accept the same logic that al-Qaeda’s terror attacks on 9/11 were somehow the understandable backlash of American foreign policy. When terrorists set off bombs in Cairo, Alexandria, or Asyut, there simply is no legitimate excuse, ever. Period.

The Egyptian generals are no saints, but they have moved forward with the electoral process. The jury is out about how genuine the roadmap to democracy is, but it is essential not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. True, Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will probably win, but he is also probably the most popular politician in Egypt right now. Hopefully, he will recognize the mistakes that led to the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak in the first place, and not make the same compromises with crony capitalists and corrupt generals.

U.S. interests are well-served by engagement with the Egyptian leadership during the current transition and into the future. Support should not be blind, but it is essential to recognize that the best chance to encourage real and lasting democratic reform comes only when the Muslim Brotherhood—a group as antithetical to democracy as the terrorist movements it has spawned—is defeated. Just as military analysts preached the importance of stability and security in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to enable those countries to move forward, so it is true also with Egypt. It is ironic—and inconsistent—for those cheerleading security in some countries to treat it with such disdain in others.


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