Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egypt

Islamist Tyrant Morsi’s No Martyr

The optics weren’t ideal for Secretary of State John Kerry. The day after he visited Egypt to try and mend fences with the country’s military government, deposed President Mohamed Morsi went on trial in Cairo during which he challenged that regime’s legitimacy and defied the court’s right to try him. The juxtaposition of these events was enough to earn Kerry a rhetorical spanking from the New York Times editorial page that chided him for backtracking on the administration’s effort to distance itself from the military after it deposed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in July. Kerry’s effort was late and clumsy, especially coming only a week after National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the Times that Egypt was just not a priority for Washington in the wake of its decision to cut military aid to Cairo. But however inept this administration’s Egypt policy has been, there should be no doubt about one thing: no one should be buying Morsi’s martyr act.

There’s little doubt that, as the Times indicated, the generals are hypocrites for trying Morsi for inciting the killing of protesters when they have been guilty of treating the Brotherhood in the same manner. The military is determined to crush the Brotherhood and Morsi has no chance of being acquitted of the charges. But even those like the Times and the people inside the administration that were happy to embrace the Brotherhood during its year of power need to admit that the deposed leader is almost certainly guilty. Moreover, though his deposition was the result of a coup, Morsi’s defiance of the court told us all we need to know about why the military decided to act after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for his ouster.

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The optics weren’t ideal for Secretary of State John Kerry. The day after he visited Egypt to try and mend fences with the country’s military government, deposed President Mohamed Morsi went on trial in Cairo during which he challenged that regime’s legitimacy and defied the court’s right to try him. The juxtaposition of these events was enough to earn Kerry a rhetorical spanking from the New York Times editorial page that chided him for backtracking on the administration’s effort to distance itself from the military after it deposed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in July. Kerry’s effort was late and clumsy, especially coming only a week after National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the Times that Egypt was just not a priority for Washington in the wake of its decision to cut military aid to Cairo. But however inept this administration’s Egypt policy has been, there should be no doubt about one thing: no one should be buying Morsi’s martyr act.

There’s little doubt that, as the Times indicated, the generals are hypocrites for trying Morsi for inciting the killing of protesters when they have been guilty of treating the Brotherhood in the same manner. The military is determined to crush the Brotherhood and Morsi has no chance of being acquitted of the charges. But even those like the Times and the people inside the administration that were happy to embrace the Brotherhood during its year of power need to admit that the deposed leader is almost certainly guilty. Moreover, though his deposition was the result of a coup, Morsi’s defiance of the court told us all we need to know about why the military decided to act after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for his ouster.

While denouncing his captors, Morsi declared that he was still the president of Egypt in the courtroom. Though his claim of a democratic mandate was undermined by his distinctly undemocratic behavior, he probably can make some claim to still hold office until a successor is elected. But the conceit of his stand is not so much that the coup is wrong, as it is that no one had a right to judge him: not the court, the military, nor the millions of protesters who sought his ouster.

Although the Brotherhood attained power via an election, their ouster should in no way be considered a blow to democracy. The Islamist leader seems to be taking the line that he is above the law. The Islamists have always refused to play by anyone’s rules but their own, so while it is true that his treatment may seem harsh, it is in keeping with the methods he sought to employ against his rivals. He is simply a tyrant who failed in his attempt to impose a totalitarian system on Egypt, not a martyr.

This is the core issue behind the debate about whether to punish the military for its efforts to crush the Brotherhood. Once in power, Morsi and his party had one goal: the imposition of its Islamist beliefs on the entire country and ensuring that no opposition would ever be allowed to make them accountable or to evict them from office. If the military has been able in the four months since the coup to decapitate the once popular Islamist party and to ensure that it has not been able to mount a serious terrorist threat against the new government, it is because many Egyptians who supported the Brotherhood as the only alternative to the Mubarak dictatorship now see that the cure was worse than the disease.

The conflict in Egypt is a zero-sum game in which the only choices available to the West are the Brotherhood and the military. That’s why Kerry is right to start and retreat from the president’s foolish decisions on Egypt. As Eric Trager writes in The Atlantic, the Brotherhood is far from dead, and it will require vigilance in order to ensure that it will not again become a serious threat to Egypt or the region. But it should gain no traction or sympathy from Westerners who are moved by Morsi’s pleas and crocodile tears about the democratic process.

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Beating the Brotherhood Isn’t Impossible

Last summer when Egypt’s military intervened in a conflict between a protest movement composed of what appeared to be tens of millions of citizens and the country’s Muslim Brotherhood government, critics of the coup warned the generals not to exclude the Islamist party from government. While there was a case to be made against overturning the results of an election, the Brotherhood’s use of the power it gained to try to transform Egypt and to ensure it could never be challenged galvanized public opinion against it. But those calling for a cutoff of U.S. aid to Cairo to punish the military for usurping Mohamed Morsi also warned that any effort to defeat the Brotherhood rather than to bring it into the next government would backfire. The Brotherhood would, we were told, go quickly underground and be impossible to root out. The assumption was that the Islamists would not only survive but that it would transform Egypt into another Algeria where, in a similar fashion, the military denied power to Islamists and plunged that country into a bloody conflict.

But more than three months later, it appears that the predictions of doom were exaggerated. As the New York Times reports, the military just announced the arrest of one more Muslim Brotherhood leader, Essam el-Erian, a senior leader and advisor to ousted president Morsi. With el-Erian, the military has now effectively decapitated the Brotherhood with virtually every member of the group’s leadership now in prison. The capture of this particular figure is especially satisfying for the military since he is thought of as being, along with Morsi, a symbol of Islamist overreach and a key figure in the group’s attempt to establish hegemony over Egypt. But the main point is that, without much in the way of resistance from the Brotherhood and its vaunted underground capabilities, the military looks to have won its battle. Indeed, as the Daily Beast reported earlier this month, Gen. General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi has become a popular figure. This is especially true since the Obama administration foolishly cut off most of the aid the U.S. sends to Egypt annually.

There are two conclusions that may be drawn from this.

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Last summer when Egypt’s military intervened in a conflict between a protest movement composed of what appeared to be tens of millions of citizens and the country’s Muslim Brotherhood government, critics of the coup warned the generals not to exclude the Islamist party from government. While there was a case to be made against overturning the results of an election, the Brotherhood’s use of the power it gained to try to transform Egypt and to ensure it could never be challenged galvanized public opinion against it. But those calling for a cutoff of U.S. aid to Cairo to punish the military for usurping Mohamed Morsi also warned that any effort to defeat the Brotherhood rather than to bring it into the next government would backfire. The Brotherhood would, we were told, go quickly underground and be impossible to root out. The assumption was that the Islamists would not only survive but that it would transform Egypt into another Algeria where, in a similar fashion, the military denied power to Islamists and plunged that country into a bloody conflict.

But more than three months later, it appears that the predictions of doom were exaggerated. As the New York Times reports, the military just announced the arrest of one more Muslim Brotherhood leader, Essam el-Erian, a senior leader and advisor to ousted president Morsi. With el-Erian, the military has now effectively decapitated the Brotherhood with virtually every member of the group’s leadership now in prison. The capture of this particular figure is especially satisfying for the military since he is thought of as being, along with Morsi, a symbol of Islamist overreach and a key figure in the group’s attempt to establish hegemony over Egypt. But the main point is that, without much in the way of resistance from the Brotherhood and its vaunted underground capabilities, the military looks to have won its battle. Indeed, as the Daily Beast reported earlier this month, Gen. General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi has become a popular figure. This is especially true since the Obama administration foolishly cut off most of the aid the U.S. sends to Egypt annually.

There are two conclusions that may be drawn from this.

One is that those who warned that the Islamists were, if not invincible, at least impossible to defeat, were wrong. It is true that the last word has not been spoken on the conflict in Egypt and the Brotherhood may well rally itself to cause more harm. But it is also clear that, at least for the moment, it doesn’t appear that the group is capable of mounting an insurgency that could threaten the military. Rather than make the country unstable, as critics of the coup warned, it seems to have had exactly the effect the military hoped it would have. While democracy is nowhere in sight in Egypt, it has also not descended into chaos, let alone civil war.

Also instructive is the fact that the Brotherhood is not as popular as its American cheerleaders (including, unfortunately, much of the administration) thought it was.

When the Mubarak regime fell in 2011, the Brotherhood was the only organized opposition party and took full advantage of its advantage in the rush to transform the country into a democracy. With powerful friends in Turkey and in Gaza (where its ideological offshoot Hamas ruled), the Brotherhood was popular and powerful. Other new parties, especially those that were secular or liberal, were no match for it and it breezed to victory in the elections that followed.

The assumption was that not only would the Brotherhood quickly adapt to the coup and resume its status as the leader of the opposition in the underground but that it could still count on the backing of a critical mass of Egyptians.

But the year in power may have degraded the Brotherhood’s ability to pose a terrorist threat to the new regime in Cairo.

On the one hand, assuming office took them public in a way they had never done before. That makes it much harder for them to operate underground. But their time in power, and the enormous hostility they generated among ordinary Egyptians, may have also made it impossible for them to lead any kind of clandestine effort. Not only are they more visible but their unpopularity—tens of millions took to the streets to protest against them—may have rendered it impossible for them to practice the classic technique of the guerilla and to hide in plain sight.

This should also call into question the judgment of the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt. Not only, as the New York Times reported last weekend, is the United States still laboring under the burden of the president’s embrace of the Brotherhood during its year of power. But it is also now deeply resented by most Egyptians for its disdain for a change in power that most of them approved. And the military, which was long a bastion of sympathy for America, is now alienated and perhaps tempted by Russia’s efforts to revive the ties it had with Egypt until Anwar Sadat dumped them.

The U.S. miscalculated badly in Egypt. Not only is the military firmly established in power, but the most populous Arab nation may also be drifting out of the U.S. orbit. But as bad as that may be, there is something in this tale of failure that should encourage the West. The Arab spring may have turned in many places into an Islamist winter, but their eventual triumph is not certain. Totalitarian movements like the Brotherhood can be defeated.

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Barack Obama, Unilateralist

Barack Obama and his crew came into office criticizing George W. Bush and his crew for being too unilateralist. Quelle surprise. Turns out that Obama is, if anything, more unilateralist. That, at least, is one conclusion you can draw from Susan Rice’s interview with the New York Times, which Jonathan has already commented on.

The article details a policy review at the NSC that Rice supervised this summer whose results were unveiled in President Obama’s speech at the UN in September. To wit: “The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.”

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Barack Obama and his crew came into office criticizing George W. Bush and his crew for being too unilateralist. Quelle surprise. Turns out that Obama is, if anything, more unilateralist. That, at least, is one conclusion you can draw from Susan Rice’s interview with the New York Times, which Jonathan has already commented on.

The article details a policy review at the NSC that Rice supervised this summer whose results were unveiled in President Obama’s speech at the UN in September. To wit: “The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.”

This is billed by Rice as “a more modest approach — one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict.” In fact it’s a more high-handed and unilateralist approach. How so? Because it rests on the assumption that the administration can choose to get involved only in the issues it has pre-determined beforehand are of interest, and that it can pursue a predetermined approach to those issues even if it flies in the face of reality and what our allies advocate.

This is a natural continuation of the president’s conceit that he can “end” wars by pulling U.S. troops out; in fact in Iraq he has re-started a war by pulling U.S. troops out. But it is part and parcel of Obama’s overweening self-regard that he imagines that his actions, and his actions alone, will determine what happens in far-off regions.

It hardly works that way. The struggle for democracy in Egypt or indeed across the Middle East–to take but one example–will not disappear simply because the administration chooses to ignore it. Nor will the Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace deal simply because the administration wills it to happen.

If President Obama were actually listening to what U.S. allies in the Middle East want, he would be focusing on toppling Bashar Assad and doing whatever it takes to stop the Iranian nuclear program rather than engaging with the Iranian regime. Nor would he be loudly proclaiming his desire to disengage from the Middle East and never again to use force. Like his ill-considered timeline in Afghanistan, those are signals that encourage aggressors and discourage our friends. Which may be why both the Saudis and Israelis, different as they are, both are signaling their disenchantment with the administration’s policies.

Meanwhile Obama has been alienating France, Germany, Brazil, and other countries over alleged NSA spying. The U.S. may have a strong case for what it is doing, but even those of us who defend NSA actions have to admit they’re–yup–unilateralist. So who’s the unilateralist now, President Obama?

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The Bizarro Doctrine

American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

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American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

Iran, a country that has sponsored nearly every terrorist group on the planet and is now hurtling toward a nuclear weapon, is the biggest winner in the Elddim Tsae. Newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has Washington eating out of his hands after a charm offensive consisting of 140-character vows promising moderation, even as his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, keeps the centrifuges spinning. The Obama administration is now mulling a grand nuclear bargain, which will provide Iran sanctions relief in exchange for vague promises of change.

Syria is also benefiting from America’s Bizarro Doctrine. In the span of days, America went from threatening punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime for launching a chemical-weapons attack on his own people to enlisting Assad as a partner in his own disarmament, and then praising him for compliance he has yet to deliver on. Even if Assad does fully disarm, he will effectively have a green light to get back to the business of mowing down the Syrian opposition, which fights to end his family’s decades-long dictatorship.

Then there is Sudan, where the leadership has been indicted for genocide and which provided a headquarters to al-Qaeda in the 1990s. Khartoum is now indicating that ties with Washington are warming. This comes after two cordial meetings between Sudan’s foreign minister and Secretary of State John Kerry, first in New York and then Washington.

On the flip side of our parallel universe is Saudi Arabia. Admittedly, Riyadh is more of a frenemy. But America’s Saudi policy, designed to maintain good ties to the ruling family and access to an affordable and steady supply of their oil, has never wavered–until now. Riyadh is outwardly displeased with America’s warming ties to its arch-foe Iran, with fears that an ascendant Iran could pose a direct threat to the Kingdom’s stability. Washington’s recent lifeline to Syria, after months of calling for Assad’s removal, also has the Saudis seething.

Turkey and Qatar, it should be noted, are equally vexed by Washington’s Syria policy, prompting both countries to consider charting their own courses, which may involve the co-opting of jihadi groups to fight the Assad regime.

Egypt, another ally of the United States, has also recently fallen victim to the Bizarro Doctrine. To be sure, Egypt has brought many of its problems upon itself. The military’s toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was not its finest moment. But Washington has now taken it upon itself to cut aid to Egypt, dismantling an alliance that could require years to properly rebuild.

Then there is Israel, which is reeling from America’s decision to cut aid to Egypt. That aid was a cornerstone of the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement that has kept Israel’s southern flank quiet since the Accords were inked. It now is entirely unclear whether Cairo will want to uphold that agreement. The Israelis are further unnerved by America’s backtracking on Syria, particularly after Washington enlisted its help in calling for military intervention. And finally, the rapprochement with Iran has the Israelis wondering whether America will have its back when Tehran invariably makes that final dash for the bomb.

Fittingly, Bizarro World was first depicted by DC Comics in 1960. Today, Washington D.C. has become a parallel universe of a superpower’s foreign policies of the past.

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Re: About That Gaza Humanitarian Crisis

As Jonathan noted Sunday, many diplomats, journalists and human rights organizations spent years loudly condemning Israel for a “humanitarian crisis in Gaza” that never existed. The truly remarkable thing, however, is how silent all these parties have fallen over the last few months, when Gaza has been suffering far worse than it ever did back when its “humanitarian crisis” was a cause célèbre. The reason, of course, is that there’s no possible way to blame the current crisis on Israel: The culprits are Egypt and the Palestinians’ own rival governments; Israel, in contrast, has been trying to alleviate the distress. And it turns out that if Palestinian distress can’t be used as a stick to bludgeon Israel, Gaza’s erstwhile champions have no interest in it whatsoever.

Ever since the Egyptian military overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government this summer, it has cracked down ruthlessly on Gaza, accusing that territory’s Hamas government of complicity in jihadist terror in Sinai and of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to attack police stations and prisons. As journalist Khaled Abu Toameh wrote recently, this crackdown is hurting Hamas far worse than Israel’s military offensives in Gaza ever did. Here are just a few of the steps Egypt has taken:

  • It has destroyed an estimated 90% of the tunnels from Sinai into Gaza. This move is entirely Hamas’s own fault: Its purpose is to stop is the extensive two-way traffic in arms and terrorists that Hamas presided over for years, and which has fueled much of the terror in Sinai. But since the tunnels were also a source of cheap Egyptian goods, their demolition has caused real hardship for impoverished Gazans.

To compensate, Israel has increased its own shipments of food and other supplies to Gaza, but Israeli goods are more expensive than their heavily subsidized Egyptian counterparts. Moreover, Hamas rejected an Israeli-Egyptian offer to send one particularly critical product previously brought in through the tunnels – cheap Egyptian fuel – via Israel instead, leading to serious shortages.

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As Jonathan noted Sunday, many diplomats, journalists and human rights organizations spent years loudly condemning Israel for a “humanitarian crisis in Gaza” that never existed. The truly remarkable thing, however, is how silent all these parties have fallen over the last few months, when Gaza has been suffering far worse than it ever did back when its “humanitarian crisis” was a cause célèbre. The reason, of course, is that there’s no possible way to blame the current crisis on Israel: The culprits are Egypt and the Palestinians’ own rival governments; Israel, in contrast, has been trying to alleviate the distress. And it turns out that if Palestinian distress can’t be used as a stick to bludgeon Israel, Gaza’s erstwhile champions have no interest in it whatsoever.

Ever since the Egyptian military overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government this summer, it has cracked down ruthlessly on Gaza, accusing that territory’s Hamas government of complicity in jihadist terror in Sinai and of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to attack police stations and prisons. As journalist Khaled Abu Toameh wrote recently, this crackdown is hurting Hamas far worse than Israel’s military offensives in Gaza ever did. Here are just a few of the steps Egypt has taken:

  • It has destroyed an estimated 90% of the tunnels from Sinai into Gaza. This move is entirely Hamas’s own fault: Its purpose is to stop is the extensive two-way traffic in arms and terrorists that Hamas presided over for years, and which has fueled much of the terror in Sinai. But since the tunnels were also a source of cheap Egyptian goods, their demolition has caused real hardship for impoverished Gazans.

To compensate, Israel has increased its own shipments of food and other supplies to Gaza, but Israeli goods are more expensive than their heavily subsidized Egyptian counterparts. Moreover, Hamas rejected an Israeli-Egyptian offer to send one particularly critical product previously brought in through the tunnels – cheap Egyptian fuel – via Israel instead, leading to serious shortages.

  • Egypt has shut down the Rafah border crossing almost entirely, turning Gaza, for the first time, into the open-air prison its erstwhile champions used to falsely proclaim it. As long as Rafah was open, Palestinians were never imprisoned; they could travel to and from Gaza via Egypt. Now, however, they truly lack any way to enter and leave.

But here’s the kicker: Sympathetic to their distress, Israel offered to reopen its own crossing with Gaza, on condition that the Palestinian Authority handle security on the Palestinian side. That would solve the problem that originally led to the crossing’s closure: Since Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, security can’t be coordinated with it. But Hamas rejected this offer – and if it hadn’t, the PA almost certainly would have, given its rejection of a similar Egyptian proposal to enable the reopening of Rafah.

  • Egypt has razed houses along the Gaza border to create a buffer zone and shot at Palestinian fishing boats seeking to evade Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-run government. Needless to say, both are steps the world denounced when Israel took them in the past.

These and other measures have produced a crisis of unprecedented severity in Gaza. But since there’s no way to blame Israel for it, Gaza’s erstwhile champions have gone AWOL. One can only pity any Palestinians naive enough to have thought the world actually cared about their suffering.

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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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