Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egypt

Egyptians on Obama’s Aid Decision

Both Jonathan Tobin and Max Boot have offered up their thoughts on the U.S. cutoff of military aid to Egypt, and I agree that the cutoff of aid is a mistake, especially as the interim Egyptian government now has a process to rewrite a constitution with adequate checks and balances, and appears to be ready to hold elections in June 2014. The United States would have better used its leverage if it ensured that those elections were observed by credible, independent, and international groups.

It is one thing to suggest that the Obama administration has harmed U.S. credibility, it is another thing to demonstrate it. In that context, a compilation put together by the BBC Monitoring of both English and Arabic-language Egyptian press and tweets commenting on the White House decision is worth considering. While there is no direct link available, the following excerpts are reflective of the larger compilation:

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Both Jonathan Tobin and Max Boot have offered up their thoughts on the U.S. cutoff of military aid to Egypt, and I agree that the cutoff of aid is a mistake, especially as the interim Egyptian government now has a process to rewrite a constitution with adequate checks and balances, and appears to be ready to hold elections in June 2014. The United States would have better used its leverage if it ensured that those elections were observed by credible, independent, and international groups.

It is one thing to suggest that the Obama administration has harmed U.S. credibility, it is another thing to demonstrate it. In that context, a compilation put together by the BBC Monitoring of both English and Arabic-language Egyptian press and tweets commenting on the White House decision is worth considering. While there is no direct link available, the following excerpts are reflective of the larger compilation:

  • Al-Tahrir daily leads with the following headline above its masthead: “Let the US aid go to hell.” Following the main headline, it carries other headlines, quoting economic and military experts as saying: “Washington uses the aid to pressure the army and Egypt should reject it now and immediately … Egypt will become stronger after the aid stops and the foreign market will be open for it to import weapons … World press: Cutting aid not to affect Egypt.”
  • The editorial of privately-owned Al-Yawm al-Sabi [is] entitled: “Let the US aid go and independence stay.”
  • Egyptian Channel 1 TV quoted the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Badr Abd-al-Ati, as saying that Egypt rejects the use of US aid as a “tool to exercise pressure” on internal decisions. “The US decision is wrong and the US side has to reconsider it,” he added.”The Egyptian government is committed to implementing the roadmap to satisfy the Egyptian people rather than Washington,” he also said.
  • Leftist activist Kamal Khalil who has 69,187 followers tweeted in Arabic: “Down with US aid. O White House, you are low. We are a people that do not yield.”
  • Famous TV Presenter Jihan Mansur, who has more than is 65,000 followers tweeted in Arabic: “The USA has no right to suspend military aid stipulated in Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement as long as Egypt is committed to it.”
  • Coptic activist @MichaelMeunier tweeted in English: “The US is on the losing end of this battle as it continues to support the terrorist organization the Brotherhood.”
  • Editor-in-chief of private Al-Watan daily, @Magdi-ElGalad said: “Late president Jamal abd-al-Nasir said aid is on my shoe [Egyptian saying that aid is less important than a shoe] and we [Egyptians] are telling them [USA]: You, aid and the Brotherhood are under our shoe.”

 The compilation then turns to Muslim Brotherhood acolytes, who supported Obama’s decision and called on Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers to publicly support Obama before Congress. I guess it’s only a matter of time, then, before the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) comes out with its full-throated embrace of a position to return Egypt to Muslim Brotherhood domination, regardless of what tens of millions of Egyptians feel and believe.

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What the Saudis Really Care About

As I noted yesterday, the idea that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help stabilize the Middle East is fatuous. Yet many world leaders continue to espouse it. In his UN address last month, for instance, President Barack Obama proclaimed that while this conflict is “not the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has been “a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it would help lay “a foundation for a broader peace.” In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius termed the conflict “one of the issues, perhaps the central one, for the region.”

Given that the events of the past few years would seem to have decisively disproved this theory–nobody would seriously argue, for instance, that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ease the sectarian bloodletting in Syria or Iraq or the feud between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Syrian conflict alone has been far more destabilizing to the region than the Israeli-Palestinian one has–the question is why so many world leaders still cling to it. A good place to look for answers is Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week.

Riyadh billed this decision as a protest against the UN’s position “on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.” If you took that at face value, you’d naturally assume that what upsets Riyadh most is the Israeli-Palestinian issue: The bulk of its statement was devoted to this issue, with Syria seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The problem is that objectively, this makes no sense: After all, by Riyadh’s own admission, the conflict has gone on for 60 years now, yet it never boycotted the UN before. So why now of all times–precisely when Washington has finally succeeded in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks after a five-year freeze?

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As I noted yesterday, the idea that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help stabilize the Middle East is fatuous. Yet many world leaders continue to espouse it. In his UN address last month, for instance, President Barack Obama proclaimed that while this conflict is “not the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has been “a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it would help lay “a foundation for a broader peace.” In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius termed the conflict “one of the issues, perhaps the central one, for the region.”

Given that the events of the past few years would seem to have decisively disproved this theory–nobody would seriously argue, for instance, that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ease the sectarian bloodletting in Syria or Iraq or the feud between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Syrian conflict alone has been far more destabilizing to the region than the Israeli-Palestinian one has–the question is why so many world leaders still cling to it. A good place to look for answers is Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week.

Riyadh billed this decision as a protest against the UN’s position “on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.” If you took that at face value, you’d naturally assume that what upsets Riyadh most is the Israeli-Palestinian issue: The bulk of its statement was devoted to this issue, with Syria seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The problem is that objectively, this makes no sense: After all, by Riyadh’s own admission, the conflict has gone on for 60 years now, yet it never boycotted the UN before. So why now of all times–precisely when Washington has finally succeeded in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks after a five-year freeze?

Regarding Syria, however, the UN did just do something that upset Riyadh greatly: At Russia’s initiative, it passed a resolution on disarming the Assad regime of its chemical weapons that not only killed American plans for imminent airstrikes, but essentially guaranteed Assad immunity from Western intervention for the foreseeable future and legitimized him as a partner, thereby effectively reversing two years of Western demands that he step down. For Saudi Arabia, which has backed Syria’s rebels heavily with both money and arms, this was a major blow.

Indeed, anyone tracking Riyadh’s actions rather than its words can easily see which issues it cares about and which it doesn’t: In contrast to its massive support for the Syrian rebels, or the $5 billion it pledged to Egypt’s military government after July’s coup, its financial support for the Palestinians is meager. UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, gets almost all its funding from the West; Saudi Arabia gave it a mere $12 million last year–less than half the sum provided by Holland alone. Western states are also the Palestinian Authority’s main financial backers; Arab countries not only pledge less to begin with, but serially default on their pledges.

There are various reasons why Arabs feel the need to cloak their real concerns behind a façade of verbiage about the Palestinians. The truly puzzling question is why the West hasn’t yet learned to look behind this verbiage to the telltale actions–what Arabs care enough to spend money on, or, as I’ve written before, to put their lives on the line for. But until it does, it will keep right on believing that fatuous claim of Israeli-Palestinian centrality. 

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Egyptian Military Is on the Clock

Foreign policy realpolitikers who favor backing the Egyptian generals argue that they have already ended the threat posed by Muslim Brotherhood rule and that they will now destroy the Brotherhood as a future threat to Egypt–and by implication to the U.S. and Israel. Some other analysts have been dubious about this argument not because we don’t share the goal of ending Brotherhood rule in Egypt but because we fear that the military crackdown will not succeed in suppressing the Brotherhood and, by forcing it underground, will only make it a greater terrorist threat in the future.

So far evidence has been lacking as to which view is right. Egypt has certainly not been thrown into the cauldron of civil war since the military coup in July. It looks nothing like Syria or even Iraq. But nor is the military crackdown entirely unopposed. The latest news:

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Foreign policy realpolitikers who favor backing the Egyptian generals argue that they have already ended the threat posed by Muslim Brotherhood rule and that they will now destroy the Brotherhood as a future threat to Egypt–and by implication to the U.S. and Israel. Some other analysts have been dubious about this argument not because we don’t share the goal of ending Brotherhood rule in Egypt but because we fear that the military crackdown will not succeed in suppressing the Brotherhood and, by forcing it underground, will only make it a greater terrorist threat in the future.

So far evidence has been lacking as to which view is right. Egypt has certainly not been thrown into the cauldron of civil war since the military coup in July. It looks nothing like Syria or even Iraq. But nor is the military crackdown entirely unopposed. The latest news:

Deadly violence against the government broke out around Egypt on Monday as health officials raised to 53 the number said to have been killed the day before in clashes between supporters and opponents of the military takeover that ousted President Mohamed Morsi three months ago.

Unidentified gunmen in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia killed six soldiers, including a lieutenant, in a drive-by shooting, while a car bomb at the security headquarters in the southern Sinai town of El-Tor killed two police officers and injured nearly 50 other people, state media reported. In Cairo, assailants fired at least one rocket-propelled grenade through a satellite dish used to transmit Egyptian state television.

This is ominous–but hardly determinative. Supporters of the military coup have to acknowledge that the threat of civil war–and with it the creation of fresh terrorists–is rising. Critics of the coup, including me, have to acknowledge that our worst fears have not come to pass yet and may never do so.

The reason why Egypt has been stumbling along since July is probably because the Brotherhood sacrificed so much legitimacy with its bumbling while in power. The military, aided by a massive cash infusion from the Persian Gulf monarchies and a willingness to undo the minimal privatization that took place under the now-released despot Hosni Mubarak, has been able to kick start the economy at least temporarily, thus enhancing its short-term popularity.

But Egypt is still in a parlous economic condition and its top hard-currency earner–tourism–is not going to revive while potential travelers are reading headlines about clashes and casualties. The billions sent by the Saudis, Emiratis, and others will not last forever. Already economists are saying that Egypt will grow at only 2.6 percent this fiscal year, well below the government’s objective of 3.5 percent growth. Faster growth is a necessity, lest large numbers of unemployed young men prove to be a destabilizing force.

The military has only a limited amount of time to show that it is better at governance than the Brotherhood or it is likely to face the same sort of backlash that Mohamed Morsi & Co. faced–and that backlash could easily produce more violence.

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Egypt’s Prognosis Goes from Bad to Worse

Every year, the World Economic Forum releases The Global Competitiveness Report. The report shows just how desperate the situation has become in Egypt. In quality of primary education, for example, Egypt now ranks 148th out of 148 countries surveyed. That puts it behind such countries as Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. Its higher education system is 145th, beating out only South Africa, Libya, and Yemen. And it comes in 143rd in women in the labor force as a ratio to men, ahead of only Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The tsunami over the horizon is Egypt’s poor economic performance; no politician, whether Islamist or pro-military, appears ready to end Egypt’s subsidies of food and fuel, and so Egypt continues to hemorrhage whatever money allies grant it. In the category “Government Budget Balance, as percent of GDP,” Egypt again comes in dead last.

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Every year, the World Economic Forum releases The Global Competitiveness Report. The report shows just how desperate the situation has become in Egypt. In quality of primary education, for example, Egypt now ranks 148th out of 148 countries surveyed. That puts it behind such countries as Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. Its higher education system is 145th, beating out only South Africa, Libya, and Yemen. And it comes in 143rd in women in the labor force as a ratio to men, ahead of only Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The tsunami over the horizon is Egypt’s poor economic performance; no politician, whether Islamist or pro-military, appears ready to end Egypt’s subsidies of food and fuel, and so Egypt continues to hemorrhage whatever money allies grant it. In the category “Government Budget Balance, as percent of GDP,” Egypt again comes in dead last.

Other Arab Spring countries do not do much better. Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen hug the bottom rung throughout. Tunisia is supposed to be the shining star of the Arab Spring—but with a female labor participation ranking of 136 out of 146, that’s like saying we should celebrate Jersey City because it’s not Newark.

Part of the problem might be the chicken-and-egg conundrum: Perhaps the Arab Spring has turned out so badly (and Islamists have been so successful exploiting popular ignorance) because the education system has long been abysmal and the financial system so poor. Regardless, the question of how Egypt and other states can break out of such a cycle is unclear, but their inability to rise in the ranking has long-term security implications for the region. What an indictment it is of decades of poor leadership that these states cannot even beat a place like Zimbabwe where it counts.

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Obama Appoints Zogby to Commission on Religious Freedom

Last week, the White House quietly announced the appointment of Dr. James Zogby to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Zogby—whom I have debated on occasion on radio programs and who has always been a gentleman—is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute and co-founder of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.  

But is Zogby the proper person to fight for religious freedom in the Middle East at a time when minorities are under the worst siege since the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands in the wake of Israel’s founding?

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Last week, the White House quietly announced the appointment of Dr. James Zogby to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Zogby—whom I have debated on occasion on radio programs and who has always been a gentleman—is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute and co-founder of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.  

But is Zogby the proper person to fight for religious freedom in the Middle East at a time when minorities are under the worst siege since the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands in the wake of Israel’s founding?

Alas, the answer to that is no. Zogby has at times demonstrated an apologia which undercuts his ability as an advocate. Take, for example, an incident a decade ago in which Harvard University decided to partner with the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Zayed Center, an institution which sponsored Holocaust denial and promoted blood libel. The indefatigable Tom Gross catalogued the Zayed Center’s activities here. Zogby, however, who currently is also a visiting professor in Abu Dhabi, rushed to Zayed’s defense. From the CBS Evening News on May 19, 2003:

“That’s wrong, that smacks of a witch hunt,” says James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute. Zogby says the center does bear the sheik’s name, but so do a lot of things in his country. Zogby believes the sheik did not know about it. “There is no relationship between Sheik Zayed and the center,” says Zogby. “He knows who’s there,” says [Rachel] Fish. “There’s no way he does not know.” Harvard refused our request for an on-camera interview, but in a statement, called some of the center’s activities “repugnant and indefensible.” It said it is “carefully investigating” any links with Sheik Zayed.

Zogby was also a featured writer for the Arab Voice at the time that paper was excerpting the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Zogby responds at the base of the article, which is followed by a follow-up article casting doubt on parts of his explanations). He accused Israel of waging a “Holocaust” against the Palestinians. More recently, he embraced political polemics if not conspiracies regarding the Iraq war. And most recently, Zogby accused Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of being an “Israel firster,” an anti-Semitic trope.

Zogby has long been an activist for the Democratic Party and an enthusiastic supporter of President Obama. It’s understandable that Obama wishes to reward him for his loyalty and, perhaps, for his political views. To do so with a seat at the USCIRF at a time when minorities are under siege from Syria to Egypt to Iran, however, shows the lack of seriousness with which Obama treats religious freedom.

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What’s Motivating Erdoğan on Egypt?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become the most outspoken international leader condemning the coup in Egypt and calling for the restoration of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Certainly, part of Erdoğan’s commitment to Morsi is ideological: Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party is, at its roots, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both share an ideological and religious agenda and hope to remake their societies fundamentally.

It would give Erdoğan too much credit to suggest his only motivation is religious. Erdoğan is no saint; he is vain, coarse, and has amassed an amazing amount of money far beyond his salary or religious alms. In the months before Morsi’s ouster, Turkish defense contractors cultivated Egypt. From Hürriyet Daily News:

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become the most outspoken international leader condemning the coup in Egypt and calling for the restoration of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Certainly, part of Erdoğan’s commitment to Morsi is ideological: Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party is, at its roots, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both share an ideological and religious agenda and hope to remake their societies fundamentally.

It would give Erdoğan too much credit to suggest his only motivation is religious. Erdoğan is no saint; he is vain, coarse, and has amassed an amazing amount of money far beyond his salary or religious alms. In the months before Morsi’s ouster, Turkish defense contractors cultivated Egypt. From Hürriyet Daily News:

An Arab diplomat in Ankara said he expected “difficult times” in Turkish-Egyptian relations, which may disrupt economic relations too, unless Ankara and Cairo prefer to pursue a pragmatic line… In May Turkey granted Egypt a $250 million loan to finance Turkish-Egyptian joint defense projects. The loan, the first of its kind, intends to boost defense cooperation and Turkish defense exports to Egypt. Earlier, Egypt expressed an interest in buying the new ANKA Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicles built by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). Egypt was one of the pioneers in unmanned aerial systems, fielding the Teledyne Ryan Model 324 Scarab high speed drone and SkyEye tactical UAVs since the early 1980s. The addition of a MALE platform will fulfill the gap offering better persistence, improved imagery and multi-payload capacity. The potential sale of six to 10 ANKA systems to Egypt was discussed during Erdoğan’s visit to Cairo last November… In a separate deal, Ankara had approved the sale to Egypt of six multi-role tactical platforms, MRTP-20 “fast-intervention crafts,” produced by the privately-owned shipyards Yonca-Onuk.

Erdoğan may be angry at the financial hit Turkey took in Egypt, but the episode should also be a wake-up call to the changing military balance in the Middle East. While the United States provides Turkey with high-end military platforms, Turkey has been building up a military industry which potentially can change the military balance in the region. The coup may have voided Turkish military contracts in Egypt, but it is an open question what Turkey has provided to Islamists in other Arab Spring countries.

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Kuwait as a Model

The bad news continues to flood in from across the Middle East: Tunisia—the best hope for the Arab Spring—is unstable after political assassinations against leading non-Islamist politicians. While I don’t shed any tears over the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which for decades has inspired terrorism and hatred, at best Egypt faces years of Islamist insurgency and economic life support. The Syrian civil war goes from bad to worse. Bahrain remains tense and what Bahraini police occasion do with rubber bullets, their Saudi counterparts in the Eastern Province do with live ammunition. Iraq is not the basket case many assume, but it has faced a wave of renewed terrorism as bad as anything experienced prior to the U.S.-led surge.

Is there any good news or responsible governance coming from the region? Certainly, Morocco is navigating the waters of the Arab Spring fairly well, with the king seemingly sincere in his reform. So too is Oman, where Sultan Qaboos’s regime has always been an example of moderation and responsibility. But Qaboos has no heir apparent and he’s not going to have one, meaning that the Sultanate of Oman upon which the United States and so many moderate regional states have come to rely may have an uncertain future as Iran and other nearby powers will try to muck about in his succession in order to further their own illiberal interests.

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The bad news continues to flood in from across the Middle East: Tunisia—the best hope for the Arab Spring—is unstable after political assassinations against leading non-Islamist politicians. While I don’t shed any tears over the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which for decades has inspired terrorism and hatred, at best Egypt faces years of Islamist insurgency and economic life support. The Syrian civil war goes from bad to worse. Bahrain remains tense and what Bahraini police occasion do with rubber bullets, their Saudi counterparts in the Eastern Province do with live ammunition. Iraq is not the basket case many assume, but it has faced a wave of renewed terrorism as bad as anything experienced prior to the U.S.-led surge.

Is there any good news or responsible governance coming from the region? Certainly, Morocco is navigating the waters of the Arab Spring fairly well, with the king seemingly sincere in his reform. So too is Oman, where Sultan Qaboos’s regime has always been an example of moderation and responsibility. But Qaboos has no heir apparent and he’s not going to have one, meaning that the Sultanate of Oman upon which the United States and so many moderate regional states have come to rely may have an uncertain future as Iran and other nearby powers will try to muck about in his succession in order to further their own illiberal interests.

I had the privilege of visiting Kuwait last year, my first extended stay in the country for almost two decades. Kuwait has had some rough patches over recent years both because of changing demography but also because the government has pushed forward with real attempts at reform, encouraging real dynamism, and giving women a long-overdue vote. At the same time, the Kuwaitis have had to navigate dangerous sectarian trends as they find themselves wedged between Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. This, they seem to have done masterfully, even as trouble continues to brew on the horizon. At any rate, I’ve delved into the issue of sectarianism in Kuwait and Kuwait’s response to it in this detailed essay, for those who want reassurance that some states actually do try to temper incitement rather than rely on shallow populism for immediate political purposes.

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Latest Assad Atrocity Demands Response

On August 20, 2012, President Obama said: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is: we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation.”

Now comes news of another chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime, which has killed as many as 1,000 people not far outside Damascus. Needless to say, there is no “proof” of the use of chemical weapons but the circumstantial evidence is strong: “row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”

The Wall Street Journal quotes a “senior administration official” as saying, “There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the government.”

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On August 20, 2012, President Obama said: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is: we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation.”

Now comes news of another chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime, which has killed as many as 1,000 people not far outside Damascus. Needless to say, there is no “proof” of the use of chemical weapons but the circumstantial evidence is strong: “row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”

The Wall Street Journal quotes a “senior administration official” as saying, “There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the government.”

The question is what, if anything, the administration plans to do about the latest transgression of its vaunted red line. Previous evidence of chemical weapons use wrung out of a visibly reluctant Obama a pledge in June to provide arms to vetted factions of the Syrian rebels. But those arms still have not arrived, apparently, and now Assad is upping the ante–employing chemical weapons again even as a UN team is visiting Damascus to investigate the previous use of chemical weapons.

Assad is flaunting his disregard for the United States and indeed for the international community. France has understandably said that force is needed in response, but there is no indication that Obama will go along. His chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, appears to be dead-set against greater intervention, thus providing an excuse for Obama to do nothing, even though it would be easy for the U.S. and its allies to launch air strikes on regime targets. It would not even require sending Western aircraft over Syria; Israel has proved how easy it is to launch missiles from outside of Syrian airspace. That could be accomplished by both Western aircraft and Western ships. Of course taking down the remnants of Assad’s air defense network, which no doubt has been degraded by military defections and loss of territory, would not be all that difficult either for the world’s most advanced air force.

A failure to act now will expose the U.S. to ridicule as an ineffectual laughing-stock, a superpower that can be defied with impunity–an impression already created by the U.S. failure to shape events from Libya (where the death of our ambassador remains unavenged) to Egypt (where the military junta defies American advice not to slaughter protesters).

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Re: What is Being Done to Protect Copts?

Last week I first raised the issue of Muslim Brotherhood attacks on Christian churches in Egypt as a way of expressing their anger about the military’s toppling of the government of Mohamed Morsi and the crackdown against Islamists in Cairo. Earlier today, our Michael Rubin again highlighted this appalling development and pointed out that the violence was so intense that services were cancelled at one monastery for the first time in 1,600 years. But also today, our Max Boot raised another aspect of this story as part of his argument that the United States should not support the military government in its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, a point on which both Michael and I disagree. As Max writes, though opponents of the Brotherhood have used the issue of their attacks on Coptic Christians to justify the military’s behavior, the new government hasn’t lifted a finger to help the victims of these assaults.

Egyptian Christians are angry about this and rightly so. Their lot was not easy under the Mubarak regime and the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule was perhaps even worse. As such, it is hardly surprising that the new power in Cairo has shown little interest in defending religious freedom. But even as we acknowledge one more flaw in a regime that we already knew was, at best, authoritarian in nature, that doesn’t justify an attitude of neutrality when it comes to the conflict between the military and the Brotherhood.

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Last week I first raised the issue of Muslim Brotherhood attacks on Christian churches in Egypt as a way of expressing their anger about the military’s toppling of the government of Mohamed Morsi and the crackdown against Islamists in Cairo. Earlier today, our Michael Rubin again highlighted this appalling development and pointed out that the violence was so intense that services were cancelled at one monastery for the first time in 1,600 years. But also today, our Max Boot raised another aspect of this story as part of his argument that the United States should not support the military government in its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, a point on which both Michael and I disagree. As Max writes, though opponents of the Brotherhood have used the issue of their attacks on Coptic Christians to justify the military’s behavior, the new government hasn’t lifted a finger to help the victims of these assaults.

Egyptian Christians are angry about this and rightly so. Their lot was not easy under the Mubarak regime and the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule was perhaps even worse. As such, it is hardly surprising that the new power in Cairo has shown little interest in defending religious freedom. But even as we acknowledge one more flaw in a regime that we already knew was, at best, authoritarian in nature, that doesn’t justify an attitude of neutrality when it comes to the conflict between the military and the Brotherhood.

The Christian minority are, unfortunately, the innocent bystanders in a growing conflict in which they stand little to gain. But the Brotherhood wasn’t wrong in surmising that Christians were, like the vast majority of Egyptians, outraged by Morsi’s push for total power that he would never have peacefully relinquished had the military failed to step in. Principled observers like frequent COMMENTARY contributor Elliott Abrams believe that the U.S. must run the risk of making Egyptians believe we favor the Brotherhood even if that is not the case in order to send a necessary statement about the military’s beastly behavior.

However, I believe the stakes in this conflict are such that neither the world nor the Egyptian people should labor under any doubts about the necessity of the Brotherhood’s complete defeat. As I wrote two weeks ago before the government began clearing out the Islamists’ armed camps in Cairo, this conflict is a zero-sum game in which there are only two choices. It may be possible to, as Max does, view the military’s attacks on the Islamists as morally equivalent to their assaults on churches and the Copts. Neither the military nor the Brotherhood present us with an attractive option in Egypt, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary that the Islamist movement be dealt a crippling blow from which it should never be allowed to recover.

The Islamists present a clear and present danger to non-Muslims, secular and liberal Muslims as well as the State of Israel and the West. Egyptian Christians may not like the military, but they still understand that they are far better off with them in power rather than Morsi and his crowd. Americans should be no less smart in their view of the conflict.

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What Is Being Done to Protect Copts?

The plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt has caught the attention of Americans, and understandably so—they face a wave of attacks against their businesses, homes, and churches. The culprits are radical Muslims who are eager to hit back at the government for a continuing crackdown but lack the courage or means to fight back directly against the security forces. So instead they are victimizing innocent Copts who are one of the groups in Egyptian society most opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and its goal of creating a more Islamicized society.

Yet there is more to this story than a simple narrative of reprehensible conduct by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other, more radical Islamist groups. The Egyptian military is eager to publicize attacks on Copts to delegitimize the Brotherhood as a pack of terrorists—a criticism that resounds especially loudly in majority-Christian countries such as the United States. But the army, while eager to denounce church burnings, is doing little to stop them.

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The plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt has caught the attention of Americans, and understandably so—they face a wave of attacks against their businesses, homes, and churches. The culprits are radical Muslims who are eager to hit back at the government for a continuing crackdown but lack the courage or means to fight back directly against the security forces. So instead they are victimizing innocent Copts who are one of the groups in Egyptian society most opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and its goal of creating a more Islamicized society.

Yet there is more to this story than a simple narrative of reprehensible conduct by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other, more radical Islamist groups. The Egyptian military is eager to publicize attacks on Copts to delegitimize the Brotherhood as a pack of terrorists—a criticism that resounds especially loudly in majority-Christian countries such as the United States. But the army, while eager to denounce church burnings, is doing little to stop them.

The Wall Street Journal reports that during a wave of anti-Christian attacks in the town of Minya, “security forces were nowhere to be seen,” and “in the days after no suspects appear to have been brought in,” even though “looting of the churches has continued.”

The Journal article quotes one “Christian who lives in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood,” who said “that as the local Bishop Moussa Church was under siege, he made several fruitless calls to the police. With no response from the fire station a few blocks away, either, he said, he and his neighbors put out fires with a garden hose.”

This is part of a long pattern with the Egyptian “deep state” which, in its statements abroad, condemns attacks on Christians but does little to stop them at home. This has bred widespread suspicion that the cynical generals are simply interested in generating fresh victims to justify their continuing crackdown on the Brotherhood.

The Coptic Christians feel used and ill-treated by the military regime. That’s something that American supporters of the generals should keep in mind before they use reprehensible attacks on the Copts to justify equally reprehensible attacks against demonstrators by the security forces.

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Just How Bad Has Egypt Become?

Much has been said about how the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements seek to drive Christians from the Middle East. Egyptian Copts are the last vestiges of an Egyptian civilization which predates the Islamic invasion and one of the last vestiges of what once was a far more pluralistic society now that Egypt is also almost completely Judenrein. The violence which the Muslim Brotherhood had directed toward Egypt’s Christians has been amply covered in stories about churches being burned and nuns being humiliated. But to put the situation in historic context, this story from the Egyptian Independent is worth reading:

Minya churches canceled on Sunday the second mass, holding only a brief one. Meanwhile, prayers did not take place at other churches which were attacked. Priest Selwanes Lotfy of the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram monastery in Degla, south of Minya, said, “We did not hold prayers in the monastery on Sunday for the first time in 1,600 years.”

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Much has been said about how the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements seek to drive Christians from the Middle East. Egyptian Copts are the last vestiges of an Egyptian civilization which predates the Islamic invasion and one of the last vestiges of what once was a far more pluralistic society now that Egypt is also almost completely Judenrein. The violence which the Muslim Brotherhood had directed toward Egypt’s Christians has been amply covered in stories about churches being burned and nuns being humiliated. But to put the situation in historic context, this story from the Egyptian Independent is worth reading:

Minya churches canceled on Sunday the second mass, holding only a brief one. Meanwhile, prayers did not take place at other churches which were attacked. Priest Selwanes Lotfy of the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram monastery in Degla, south of Minya, said, “We did not hold prayers in the monastery on Sunday for the first time in 1,600 years.”

It’s not every day you can say the situation is the worst it has been in 1,600 years. Under such circumstances, perhaps it’s time for the White House to choose a side rather than continue its dawdling. Let us hope when they choose, they recognize the Muslim Brotherhood for what it is rather than what its English speaking spokesmen tell credulous American officials and analysts.

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Discrediting the Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt is rarely just about Egypt. So a full conversation about whether to sustain American aid to the military government currently in power in Cairo has to include a widening of the scope to the broader Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, which the army deposed in a coup and the recent crackdown, is not just another domestic political party, so its defeat is not just a domestic concern. The Brotherhood represents the recent ascendancy of pan-Islamism that threatens to destabilize any non-Islamist government in the region.

A perfect example of that comes today from Reuters, which reports that Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, is foundering now that its ally next door is out of power. Hamas’s relationship with its Iranian patron was strained by the civil war in Syria, which Iran and its proxies joined on the side of Bashar al-Assad, putting them at ideological odds with Hamas. The Gaza-based terrorist group therefore had arguably the most to lose with the Brotherhood’s exit from power in Egypt.

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Egypt is rarely just about Egypt. So a full conversation about whether to sustain American aid to the military government currently in power in Cairo has to include a widening of the scope to the broader Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, which the army deposed in a coup and the recent crackdown, is not just another domestic political party, so its defeat is not just a domestic concern. The Brotherhood represents the recent ascendancy of pan-Islamism that threatens to destabilize any non-Islamist government in the region.

A perfect example of that comes today from Reuters, which reports that Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, is foundering now that its ally next door is out of power. Hamas’s relationship with its Iranian patron was strained by the civil war in Syria, which Iran and its proxies joined on the side of Bashar al-Assad, putting them at ideological odds with Hamas. The Gaza-based terrorist group therefore had arguably the most to lose with the Brotherhood’s exit from power in Egypt.

A weakened Brotherhood means a weakened Hamas, which means a slightly strengthened Fatah in the West Bank, which benefits the peace process and keeps American influence in the region active while Iran struggles to maintain its ability to make mischief in the Palestinian territories while simultaneously distracted in Syria. Additionally, the Reuters story notes that Hamas was relying on funding from the Qatari emir, but the emir’s heir does not seem to be nearly as interested in doling out cash to Hamas. The story also quotes an Israeli analyst arguing that Hamas will have to swallow some of its pride–and principles–to go crawling back to Iran:

Israeli analyst Yaari thought Iran would exact a price for welcoming Hamas back into the fold. “It will require them to stop opposing Assad and stop any criticism of Hezbollah’s intervention (in Syria) and Iranian support of Assad,” he said.

Even so, with the Brotherhood out of power in Egypt Hamas will have far more difficulty smuggling Iranian-funded weapons into the Gaza Strip. The next question, then, is: How much trouble is the Brotherhood in, at least in Egypt? The Washington Post argues today that it is facing “what many are describing as the worst crisis to confront Egypt’s 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood.”

The primary reason seems to be that the Brotherhood cannot simply go back to its pre-Arab Spring role. Before the presidency of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the organization was an underground opposition network that offered a religious alternative to the Mubarak police state. But most importantly, it offered something to the non-Islamists as well. As the Post explains:

The Brotherhood is more than a political or religious group. It has been almost a shadow state in modern Egypt, winning over supporters over the decades with a vast network of charitable services, including dental clinics and thrift shops. It is the “mother of all Islamist movements,” in the words of Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Doha Center, having spawned dozens of related groups worldwide since its founding in 1928.

Throughout its history, the Brotherhood has repeatedly clashed with Egypt’s authoritarian governments, enduring arrests, torture and imprisonment. But what’s different now, analysts say, is that it’s battling not only a military-backed government but also the disdain of a broad swath of society. Many Egyptians are irate at Morsi for the country’s economic slide and the rise in crime during his one-year rule. Others complain that the Brotherhood tried to grab power by excluding minority political groups and trying to insulate its decisions from judicial review.

“It’s the first time to see the Muslim Brotherhood in conflict not only with the state — but with the whole of the state, [including] the bureaucracy, and the political elite, and an important part of society. It’s not a limited confrontation,” Rashwan said.

Gaining authority over the most significant and populous Arab country presented the Brotherhood with a classic high-risk, high-reward opportunity. The reward was obvious–power, influence, a certain degree of regional hegemony if not over neighboring governments then over their chief domestic opposition. The risk was that if it didn’t work out, it would not be so simple to go back to the way things were.

In Cairo, it did not work out. The Brotherhood in opposition was able to provide services to a public greatly in need of them, especially since Mubarak’s reign was marked by empty promises of economic reform. But then the Brotherhood came to power and turned its totalitarian oppression on the entire state.

If an Egyptian considered himself an atheist and a socialist, but only had access to dental care because of the Brotherhood, he was likely to still consider the Brotherhood an acceptable, and possibly preferable, alternative to the Egyptian state. That is no longer the case, and it explains why the Brotherhood, whose defeat would greatly benefit the West, is on the ropes.

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The Madness of King Erdogan

Since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited Hamas to Istanbul in 2006, shortly after the Islamist terrorist organization won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority, Israel-Turkey relations have deteriorated.

Erdogan has repeatedly exploited the Palestinian issue to score propaganda points both at home and with Arab and Muslim audiences and has sacrificed a strategic alliance over his pride, especially after the Israeli incursion into Gaza in late 2008 and the Mavi Marmara affair. Why Erdogan would take cheap shots at Israel has been repeatedly discussed here and elsewhere and needs not be rehashed.

But as his vicious rhetoric increasingly flirted with anti-Israel language, there was little opposition inside Turkey to this aspect of Erdogan’s boisterous style on the international stage. Even when he brought his personal animus to a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres, whom he abruptly abandoned on stage in Davos, or when he sought revenge against Israel at NATO by seeking to exclude Israel from NATO-Mediterranean dialogue programs, or when he set up a kangaroo court against Israeli military personnel in Istanbul, few dared label this trend for what it was: political insanity and a self-inflicted wound.

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Since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited Hamas to Istanbul in 2006, shortly after the Islamist terrorist organization won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority, Israel-Turkey relations have deteriorated.

Erdogan has repeatedly exploited the Palestinian issue to score propaganda points both at home and with Arab and Muslim audiences and has sacrificed a strategic alliance over his pride, especially after the Israeli incursion into Gaza in late 2008 and the Mavi Marmara affair. Why Erdogan would take cheap shots at Israel has been repeatedly discussed here and elsewhere and needs not be rehashed.

But as his vicious rhetoric increasingly flirted with anti-Israel language, there was little opposition inside Turkey to this aspect of Erdogan’s boisterous style on the international stage. Even when he brought his personal animus to a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres, whom he abruptly abandoned on stage in Davos, or when he sought revenge against Israel at NATO by seeking to exclude Israel from NATO-Mediterranean dialogue programs, or when he set up a kangaroo court against Israeli military personnel in Istanbul, few dared label this trend for what it was: political insanity and a self-inflicted wound.

As if one could act irrationally on one front while being reasonable on all other fronts, Turkish society continued to back Erdogan. After all, his regional policies appeared briefly to pay dividends–Turkey’s economy was booming, trade with Iran was booming, relations with Syria were thawing, and popularity across the Arab world for standing up to Israel gave Turkey the brief illusion it could regain its role of regional guide it lost at the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Madness, unfortunately, cannot be compartmentalized. Erdogan’s latest outburst–in which he, as Michael Rubin pointed out, accused Israel of being behind Egypt’s military coup while citing as the only evidence a public conversation between French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni from two years ago (when she actually was in opposition)–is the acne of a conspiratorial mind that has lost touch with reality. So was, incidentally, the incessant, obsessive accusation, voiced by Erdogan and some of his ministers back in June, that the Gezi Park protests were orchestrated by foreign agents.

Turks should open their eyes to the fact that Erdogan’s obsession with conspiracies are a reflection of a man who is incapable of seeing reality in the eyes–and the increasingly disastrous foreign-policy outcomes of his decisions are one with this mindset, to say nothing of the harm he has inflicted on Turkish democratic standards. Turkey’s decision to flirt with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, support Islamist rebels in Syria, throw the strategic relation with Israel to the dogs, and increase tensions over Cyprus are all backfiring.

It was easy to dismiss his anti-Israel posture as clever or eccentric when Turkey’s foreign policy appeared set to conquer one success after another. Now that it is all ending in failure, maybe Turkish society can see that a man who sees dark conspiracies everywhere will not serve his country well–and that the harm he did to the Israel-Turkey relationship is part and parcel of the damage he is causing to the country as a whole.

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The Difference Between Syria and Egypt

For many, the Egyptian army’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is reminiscent of both Muammar Gaddafi’s savagery in Libya and of the start of the civil war in Egypt. It is neither. While the Egyptian government—and the Muslim Brotherhood—have used live ammunition against each other in the streets with predictable consequences, the fighting remains largely confined to public spaces where the two sides meet in battle. There is not as yet, thankfully, evidence of the death squads which go through villages and disappear or simply execute those suspected of backing the other side.

There are major differences between the conflict in Egypt and that in Syria:

For many, the Egyptian army’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is reminiscent of both Muammar Gaddafi’s savagery in Libya and of the start of the civil war in Egypt. It is neither. While the Egyptian government—and the Muslim Brotherhood—have used live ammunition against each other in the streets with predictable consequences, the fighting remains largely confined to public spaces where the two sides meet in battle. There is not as yet, thankfully, evidence of the death squads which go through villages and disappear or simply execute those suspected of backing the other side.

There are major differences between the conflict in Egypt and that in Syria:

  • In neither country has the violence been random. Syrian forces—both government and opposition—have readily engaged in ethnic and sectarian cleansing to carve out cantons for themselves. That is not the case in Egypt, where the two sides have fought openly in the streets. The closest Egypt comes is to the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Christians for no other reasons than sheer religious and ideological spite.
  • While the Egyptian security forces have cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood in the streets and at demonstrations, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime sought to crush dissent by targeting children. The case of Hamza Alial-Khateeb really was the point of no return: The regime thought that it could curtail political opposition among parents if it targeted their children; instead, it crossed the point of no return. Syrians are likely to take far more seriously the videos of Hamza’s brutalized body rather than Secretary of State John Kerry’s calls for compromise. The Egyptian military, to its credit, has not hunted down and killed children for the sake of killing children.

Egypt may face an insurgency for years to come, but they should no more compromise with the Muslim Brotherhood than should the United States compromise with Hamas, Hezbollah, or al-Qaeda. What is happening in Egypt is tragic, but this conflict has been brewing for quite some time and facile demands for diplomacy or compromise can do more harm than good. Tahrir is not Tiananmen, and Egypt is not Syria. Journalists too often look for analogies, but they should do so with care. Picking the wrong analogy can lead to dangerously flawed policy.

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Bahrain in Perspective

Bahrain is a country that has a special place in my heart. The Bahrainis are—hands down—the warmest people in the Persian Gulf. The country is tolerant, multi-ethnic, and hosts Jewish and Christian communities alongside Muslim ones. Whereas the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait have erased much of their past, Bahraini culture through the decades and, indeed, centuries is still evident.

That said, Bahrain is still a very conflicted society. Much of the recent social tension in Bahrain is rooted in very deep, real, and inexcusable discrimination against that country’s Shi’ite majority. After visiting Bahrain last year, I reported here, here, here, and here about some of the issues. At one point, I had speculated that Bahrain might be heading for a “bloodbath,” and on that score I was wrong.

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Bahrain is a country that has a special place in my heart. The Bahrainis are—hands down—the warmest people in the Persian Gulf. The country is tolerant, multi-ethnic, and hosts Jewish and Christian communities alongside Muslim ones. Whereas the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait have erased much of their past, Bahraini culture through the decades and, indeed, centuries is still evident.

That said, Bahrain is still a very conflicted society. Much of the recent social tension in Bahrain is rooted in very deep, real, and inexcusable discrimination against that country’s Shi’ite majority. After visiting Bahrain last year, I reported here, here, here, and here about some of the issues. At one point, I had speculated that Bahrain might be heading for a “bloodbath,” and on that score I was wrong.

While I still believe that Bahrain must reform—the Shi’ites in Bahrain must have real opportunity and say in governance; the king must do more to implement his promises; and the prime minister should retire before his intolerant policies exacerbate the conflict more. True, too many casualties could have been avoided had Bahraini security forces not fired tear gas into a confined area or if they did not hamper medical treatment for injured protestors. On the other hand, much of the Bahraini opposition is sincere, but there are some elements which seek a very different future for Bahrain. Too often, leading figures’ quotes in English and Persian are radically different, and this breeds suspicion. Any trip to a Bahraini religious bookstore can be a scary visit given all the pro-Hassan Nasrallah, Imad Mughniyeh, or Ali Khamenei propaganda, as well as the CDs with the speeches of legal opposition leader Ali Salman set to religious music and distributed by al-Manar, the television station of Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, the Bahraini government also deserves credit for its relative restraint, especially in juxtaposition to the situation in Egypt. Alas, the United States for too long has bashed Bahrain despite the Bahraini government’s invaluable assistance to the United States in general and the United States Navy in particular. While we need to encourage real reform in Bahrain, when we compare the monarchy to other governments in the region, we see just how level-headed it is. That should be appreciated, instead of condemned. With such chaos in the Middle East, it is long past time that the United States value and reward friendship, even as it pressures for needed reforms.

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Erdoğan’s Anti-Semitic Obsession

Presidents and diplomats have for decades described Turkey as a model. In 2004, for example, President George W. Bush stood before a crowd of journalists in Ankara and praised Turkey. “I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom.” After the Arab Spring, politicians began to suggest that Turkey—with its supposed combination of Islam and democracy—might be a model for the Arab states in which Islamist parties sought for the first time to compete freely in elections.

Last week at the Chautauqua Institution, I gave a lengthy address suggesting that the notion of Turkey as a model for the Middle East was both wrong and dangerous, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has proven to be a model in other ways: He has single-handedly shown how even Islamist leaders embraced in the West as the most moderate harbor noxious anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories. Almost two years ago, I wrote here about how Turkey was embracing the crudest anti-Semitism. Then, earlier this summer as Turks across the political spectrum rose up against Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism, he lashed out at some mysterious “Interest Rate Lobby,” a not-too-subtle reference to international Jewry which Erdoğan believes controls the markets. Not to be outdone, he has now accused Jews of masterminding the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. That’s right: Those Jews control the Egyptian military.

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Presidents and diplomats have for decades described Turkey as a model. In 2004, for example, President George W. Bush stood before a crowd of journalists in Ankara and praised Turkey. “I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom.” After the Arab Spring, politicians began to suggest that Turkey—with its supposed combination of Islam and democracy—might be a model for the Arab states in which Islamist parties sought for the first time to compete freely in elections.

Last week at the Chautauqua Institution, I gave a lengthy address suggesting that the notion of Turkey as a model for the Middle East was both wrong and dangerous, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has proven to be a model in other ways: He has single-handedly shown how even Islamist leaders embraced in the West as the most moderate harbor noxious anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories. Almost two years ago, I wrote here about how Turkey was embracing the crudest anti-Semitism. Then, earlier this summer as Turks across the political spectrum rose up against Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism, he lashed out at some mysterious “Interest Rate Lobby,” a not-too-subtle reference to international Jewry which Erdoğan believes controls the markets. Not to be outdone, he has now accused Jews of masterminding the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. That’s right: Those Jews control the Egyptian military.

Let’s be blunt: If Erdoğan is a model, then he is a model for bigotry. Turkey has an anti-Semitism problem, and it is personified by its leader. Any of those who still seek to embrace Erdoğan or see him as a friend through whom the United States can work are effectively endorsing a worldview that is little different from Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf Qaradawi.

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Setting America’s Position in the Mideast Back 40 Years

I sympathize with the frazzled Israeli diplomats who argue that halting U.S. aid to Egypt could endanger Israeli-Palestinian talks. Those talks are the only Mideast issue the Obama administration has shown any real interest in, and good salesmen always try to frame their pitch to appeal to their listeners’ interests. The argument is even correct, as far as it goes: The ousted Muslim Brotherhood government did back Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, while the current military government backs the PA against Hamas; that’s why the PA lauded the coup while Hamas denounced it.

Nevertheless, given that the talks haven’t a prayer of succeeding, backing Egypt’s military coup for their sake would be ridiculous. A much better argument, if anyone in Washington is still capable of hearing it, is the one Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev makes today: Not backing the coup could reverse one of America’s biggest foreign policy achievements of the 1970s–flipping Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states from the Soviet to the American camp. Today, Shalev warns, Saudi Arabia is begging Washington to support the coup, and refusing might send it and America’s other Arab clients straight back into Russia’s orbit:

To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.

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I sympathize with the frazzled Israeli diplomats who argue that halting U.S. aid to Egypt could endanger Israeli-Palestinian talks. Those talks are the only Mideast issue the Obama administration has shown any real interest in, and good salesmen always try to frame their pitch to appeal to their listeners’ interests. The argument is even correct, as far as it goes: The ousted Muslim Brotherhood government did back Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, while the current military government backs the PA against Hamas; that’s why the PA lauded the coup while Hamas denounced it.

Nevertheless, given that the talks haven’t a prayer of succeeding, backing Egypt’s military coup for their sake would be ridiculous. A much better argument, if anyone in Washington is still capable of hearing it, is the one Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev makes today: Not backing the coup could reverse one of America’s biggest foreign policy achievements of the 1970s–flipping Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states from the Soviet to the American camp. Today, Shalev warns, Saudi Arabia is begging Washington to support the coup, and refusing might send it and America’s other Arab clients straight back into Russia’s orbit:

To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.

Actually, almost any rational Mideast player today (Israel excepted) would rather have Moscow and Tehran as backers than Washington. Between them, Russia and Iran have supported their Syrian client with arms, diplomatic cover, money, and troops, while America has given the Syrian rebels nothing but empty rhetorical support. America has also done virtually nothing to help NATO ally Turkey, which has suffered both cross-border violence and a massive influx of Syrian refugees, even though Turkey’s prime minister is one of Obama’s favorite world leaders. Nor has it done much to help longstanding ally Jordan cope with the influx of refugees that threatens to overwhelm it.

Granted, Riyadh and its allies would be reluctant to share Russia’s patronage with Iran, which they loathe; they also remember who sent troops to protect them when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. But Washington’s current passivity is making Saudi Arabia fear that America has become a broken reed; hence its feelers to Russia, via the Bandar-Putin meeting. If Washington now abandons Egypt, that could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And if Riyadh leaves the American camp, Egypt would swiftly follow suit.

Once, American politicians on both sides of the aisle understood that America has interests as well as values, and that sometimes, the only choices are between two evils. As an example, Shalev aptly cites America’s alliance with the Soviets during World War II. And currently, as Jonathan has argued repeatedly, Egypt’s army is the lesser evil compared to the radical Islamists of the Brotherhood.

But today, leading Republican foreign-policy voices like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are joining leading Democrats to demand that Obama jettison American interests in favor of a “clean hands” policy: We don’t care what becomes of the Middle East as long as we can dissociate ourselves from the violence.

If Obama succumbs to these demands, he will set America’s position in the Mideast back 40 years–to a time when it had no allies at all among countries that remain vital to global energy supplies.

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Obama’s Epic Middle East Failures

So now we learn that the Obama administration has secretly suspended most forms of military aid to Egypt.

As a matter of public policy, this strikes me–as it does several of my COMMENTARY colleagues–as unwise. It will only succeed in alienating the ruling power in Egypt. (The Wall Street Journal reports that “Egypt’s military-led government said it was ‘reviewing’ its strategic relationships with the U.S. and other Western governments critical of its crackdown on Islamists, deepening the divide between the Obama administration and Cairo.”) And for all our understandable reservations about supporting the Egyptian military in this conflict, especially after its recent crackdown, the military is still the preferable option. It’s not really a close call. Like the National Socialists in Germany in 1933, the Muslim Brotherhood won an election and took the occasion to impose an increasingly repressive, anti-Semitic, and anti-American rule. So from the perspective of American national security and morality, having the Muslim Brotherhood in power is considerably worse than having the Egyptian military in power. Among other things, at least the latter considers its main enemy to be Islamism rather than Israel.

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So now we learn that the Obama administration has secretly suspended most forms of military aid to Egypt.

As a matter of public policy, this strikes me–as it does several of my COMMENTARY colleagues–as unwise. It will only succeed in alienating the ruling power in Egypt. (The Wall Street Journal reports that “Egypt’s military-led government said it was ‘reviewing’ its strategic relationships with the U.S. and other Western governments critical of its crackdown on Islamists, deepening the divide between the Obama administration and Cairo.”) And for all our understandable reservations about supporting the Egyptian military in this conflict, especially after its recent crackdown, the military is still the preferable option. It’s not really a close call. Like the National Socialists in Germany in 1933, the Muslim Brotherhood won an election and took the occasion to impose an increasingly repressive, anti-Semitic, and anti-American rule. So from the perspective of American national security and morality, having the Muslim Brotherhood in power is considerably worse than having the Egyptian military in power. Among other things, at least the latter considers its main enemy to be Islamism rather than Israel.

As for the Obama administration, the American Interest’s Walter Russell Mead concludes his long piece with this assessment:

Meanwhile, at least somebody is getting some benefit out of America’s miserable crawl through the desert. For Egypt’s generals, hungry to use every scrap of material to whomp up patriotic fervor for their cause, every sign of American displeasure, every jet not delivered and every lecture sternly read, is pure gold. The one thing everybody in Egypt agrees on now is that the Americans are about the most horrible people around—arrogant, stupid, judgmental, impractical, and not to be trusted when the going gets tough. The liberals, the generals, the Mubarak family, the Christians, the Islamists: on this one point they can all agree.

With Professor Mead’s words in mind, I’d urge people to re-read Mr. Obama’s June 4, 2009 “New Beginning” speech in Cairo. We were assured it would be “momentous,” “groundbreaking,” “epic,” and “historic.” It would fulfill, in Obama’s words, his campaign commitment to “remake” relations with the Muslim world.

That was then. Today we have Egypt being torn apart by violence, Syria riven by civil war, Iraq being convulsed by increasing violence, Jordan being destabilized, Libya looking increasingly like a failed state, the war in Afghanistan sputtering toward failure, Iran continuing its march toward nuclear weapons, worrisome developments in Pakistan and Turkey, and Russia re-establishing a presence for the first time since the early 1970s. And that doesn’t even exhaust the list. America’s reputation is at a low ebb.

Even if you are willing to grant, as I do, that (a) governing is harder than giving speeches and (b) America’s capacity to shape events is limited, the president’s Middle East failures, especially when juxtaposed with his unearned arrogance, are staggering. And it’s certainly reasonable to judge Mr. Obama by his own words and standards.  

Barack Obama promised that if he were elected president he would “remake” the world. He has; and America is paying a terrible price for it.

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Egypt Begs a Broader Strategy

President Obama has been rightly criticized for his response to Libya, Syria, and Egypt. The problem is two-fold: slow reaction and inconsistency. After all, why a responsibility to protect in Libya, but not in Syria and Egypt? Leading from behind is often not leading, and certainly forfeits American leverage: see the disastrous aftermath of Libya’s liberation from mad dictator Muammar Gaddafi. More broadly, it is evident that the United States simply lacks a strategy when it comes to political Islam.

The Bush administration to some extent and the Obama administration that followed certainly reached out and experimented with embracing political Islam: witness both Bush and Obama with regard to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party in Turkey, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision to welcome Hamas’s participation in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Obama has reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood from his first months in office, as the group became a more frequent target of engagement by the U.S. embassy in Cairo. In Libya, Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt—and also among the Syrian opposition, with all due respect to Sen. John McCain—it is clear that American outreach to Islamists has not resulted in any benefit to U.S. national interests.

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President Obama has been rightly criticized for his response to Libya, Syria, and Egypt. The problem is two-fold: slow reaction and inconsistency. After all, why a responsibility to protect in Libya, but not in Syria and Egypt? Leading from behind is often not leading, and certainly forfeits American leverage: see the disastrous aftermath of Libya’s liberation from mad dictator Muammar Gaddafi. More broadly, it is evident that the United States simply lacks a strategy when it comes to political Islam.

The Bush administration to some extent and the Obama administration that followed certainly reached out and experimented with embracing political Islam: witness both Bush and Obama with regard to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party in Turkey, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision to welcome Hamas’s participation in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Obama has reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood from his first months in office, as the group became a more frequent target of engagement by the U.S. embassy in Cairo. In Libya, Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt—and also among the Syrian opposition, with all due respect to Sen. John McCain—it is clear that American outreach to Islamists has not resulted in any benefit to U.S. national interests.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that militant Islamism isn’t simply the motivator of “workplace violence” as Obama has characterized the Fort Hood massacre, but a noxious political ideology which means both the United States and traditional notions of Western liberalism harm. The reason why so many proponents of the Muslim Brotherhood respond with ad hominem attacks when such arguments are advanced is that they simply have not substantive argument to respond constructively.

What we need is to take a lesson from the Cold War and begin to roll back political Islam: First in Egypt, and then in Gaza, Turkey, and elsewhere, but supporting opposition groups. Political Islamists will never be our friends, and so we should not waste time or effort siding with them but should rather engage with their adversaries. That does not mean Cold War-era embrace of dictatorship, but it does mean standing aloof from Islamist groups, recognizing that the Islamist embrace of the ballot box extends to Election Day only, and not beyond. Sometimes the best hope for democracy as an end result is not full democracy in the initial process.

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Tahrir Is Not Tiananmen

One of the more deceptive commentaries out there regarding the Muslim Brotherhood as it faces the Egyptian army’s crackdown is that the Brotherhood protestors are analogous to the Chinese dissidents and freedom seekers who, in 1989, faced down the Chinese Army in Tiananmen Square. It is a theme too good for the media to pass up. Here, for example, is the Guardian and here is the New York Daily News.

No doubt, the Egyptian military has been heavy-handed and has mishandled the media. And the Brotherhood, in contrast, has been media savvy from the very beginning. Just remember all the Brotherhood spokesmen and Brotherhood sympathizers who falsely spoke of the group’s evolution, moderation, and tolerance. The Brotherhood knows how to use the rhetoric of democracy and liberalism for entirely opposite purposes.

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One of the more deceptive commentaries out there regarding the Muslim Brotherhood as it faces the Egyptian army’s crackdown is that the Brotherhood protestors are analogous to the Chinese dissidents and freedom seekers who, in 1989, faced down the Chinese Army in Tiananmen Square. It is a theme too good for the media to pass up. Here, for example, is the Guardian and here is the New York Daily News.

No doubt, the Egyptian military has been heavy-handed and has mishandled the media. And the Brotherhood, in contrast, has been media savvy from the very beginning. Just remember all the Brotherhood spokesmen and Brotherhood sympathizers who falsely spoke of the group’s evolution, moderation, and tolerance. The Brotherhood knows how to use the rhetoric of democracy and liberalism for entirely opposite purposes.

The Tiananmen-to-Tahrir analogy is especially noxious because it slanders the Chinese dissidents who peacefully challenged the Chinese dictatorship’s iron grip.

  • The Tiananmen protestors were non-violent; what we have in Egypt is a two-sided fight that has resulted in dozens of police deaths.
  • The Tiananmen protestors were fighting for democracy; the Brotherhood used their year in power to eviscerate pluralism, which is why so many Egyptians rose up against them.
  • The Tiananmen protestors embraced ideological diversity; the Brotherhood seeks ideological conformity.
  • I don’t remember ever seeing the Tiananmen protestors take their ire out on China’s religious minorities.

That Egypt has turned violent is unfortunate, but it is not the first time: Egypt faced insurgency during the late 1980s and early 1990s. That the Islamists are weaker does not make them right. Nor does it make them democratic. When faced with a stark choice, it is essential to determine which side best protects American national interests and which can best return Egypt to the path of democracy, with all the checks and balances which are inherent in the system. In both cases, the Egyptian army seems the better bet, and the pressure the international community should bring to bear is to encourage a firm timeline to new elections under a new, more pluralistic constitution. What the Western media and Congress should not do is whitewash the Muslim Brotherhood’s brutality, even as it condemns the Egyptian security forces. And if the goal is democracy, it should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Nor should it embrace facile but false analogies.

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