Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egypt

The Perils of Proportionality

Much of the outrage directed at the Egyptian military is a direct result of the death toll from Wednesday’s battles on the streets of Cairo. Make no mistake: the Egyptian state may have had better weaponry, but these were battles plain and simple. The interior ministry says it lost several dozen officers, and that too is a tragedy. The notion that the United States should castigate or abandon the Egyptian army because it caused more deaths than the Muslim Brotherhood is short-sighted and based on the corrosive notion that the stronger side has a responsibility for restraint.

One of the biggest differences between the right and the left today is that the left always demonizes power, while the right recognizes that power can be used for good or for ill. Too many in the media and the State Department suffer from the David and Goliath syndrome in which they bestow sympathy and perhaps even a sense of justice on the weakest side, regardless of its beliefs and goals.

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Much of the outrage directed at the Egyptian military is a direct result of the death toll from Wednesday’s battles on the streets of Cairo. Make no mistake: the Egyptian state may have had better weaponry, but these were battles plain and simple. The interior ministry says it lost several dozen officers, and that too is a tragedy. The notion that the United States should castigate or abandon the Egyptian army because it caused more deaths than the Muslim Brotherhood is short-sighted and based on the corrosive notion that the stronger side has a responsibility for restraint.

One of the biggest differences between the right and the left today is that the left always demonizes power, while the right recognizes that power can be used for good or for ill. Too many in the media and the State Department suffer from the David and Goliath syndrome in which they bestow sympathy and perhaps even a sense of justice on the weakest side, regardless of its beliefs and goals.

This was the case with Occupy Wall Street, an amorphous group with a huge sense of entitlement but no defined ideology besides the nihilistic. And, when it comes to terrorism, too many in the West bend over backwards to comprehend the terrorists’ point of view. There are two general ways to interpret terrorist motivation: One is through the prism of grievance and the other through an understanding of religious ideology. If analysts embrace the idea that grievance motivates terrorism, then the natural policy response is to try to address that grievance and force concessions from the stronger side. The reality of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Shabaab, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and other Islamist movements, however, is that grievance is often window-dressing for ideological totalitarianism.

Even if the United States does not officially believe in direct diplomacy with all of these groups, it and the United Nations often seek to transform them into Davids, no matter how murderous their intent. Hence, Israel is castigated when—pushed to the limit by Hamas rockets—it responds with targeted strikes that kill Hamas activists and sometimes, unfortunately, bystanders. Never mind that Hamas targets civilian areas and Israel bends over backwards to mitigate collateral damage. One of the more disingenuous arguments that comes from defenders of Palestinian terrorism is that terrorists must fire homemade rockets or detonate suicide vests because they don’t have F-16s and advanced tanks. The reason why such arguments fall flat is they imply that if Palestinians did have advanced jet aircraft and armor, they would simply use that to attack Israel and thus make the casualty count more proportionate.

The same holds true for Iraq. Diplomats and journalists criticized Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for an incident in Fallujah in which a clash between government forces and Sunni protestors resulted in the deaths of several dozen Sunni protestors. That the Iraqi government first moved in with water cannons and were fired upon by supposedly “non-violent” protestors waving al-Qaeda flags was justification enough. That government troops didn’t die in numbers proportional to the Sunni extremists is not something to condemn, but rather to applaud, for it shows good training.

Back to Egypt: in recent days, the Muslim Brotherhood has suffered the brunt of the violence, but that does not exculpate it: The Brotherhood is frenzied enough that if it had access to greater weaponry, it would simply kill more.

John Kerry and Barack Obama may embrace the idea of negotiated settlements in Egypt and Syria, but history suggests the idea of diplomatic settlements absent first a violent resolution to conflict is fantasy. Before diplomacy can succeed, all parties must recognize that they can only get through the negotiating table what they cannot get through violence. Often, that occurs when one side wins decisively and the other side loses. This was a lesson best encapsulated by the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, hailed as a hero for peace, but who decided to negotiate only after trying to achieve his aims via war, only to suffer a humiliating defeat.

So what should the United States do? So long as the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to turn back the clock, impose its hateful and intolerant ideology upon Egyptians of all religiosities and religions, and refuses to abide by the pathway to transitional elections, and so long as it continues to fight in the streets, then it should suffer the consequences of its actions. And if those consequences result in exponentially higher Brotherhood casualties than army casualties, then so be it. That is the truest path to peace.

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“The Problems Are More Difficult Than I Imagined Them to Be”

As readers of this site know, I’m more than willing to criticize President Obama when I think that facts warrant it. And for the record, I believe that his policies toward the Middle East have often been inept and demonstrably unsuccessful, and they’ve certainly fallen short of the “new beginning” he promised in Cairo in 2009.

That said, it’s also important to recognize that even if Barack Obama had done everything right, things in Egypt might be roughly where they are today. It may be the case that the capacity of the United States to influence events in Egypt was intrinsically limited. The popular movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, after all, was organic; it was not driven by American policy. There’s nothing we could have done to save Mubarak’s rule. And in fact the Obama administration itself stuck with Mubarak until very nearly the end of his rule.

Once the Muslim Brotherhood took over, our ability to dictate how Morsi governed was limited as well, despite the huge aid we give to Egypt. Several administrations attempted to pressure Mubarak, after all, to ease up on his authoritarian ways, with little to show for it. Mr. Morsi was an even tougher nut to crack.

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As readers of this site know, I’m more than willing to criticize President Obama when I think that facts warrant it. And for the record, I believe that his policies toward the Middle East have often been inept and demonstrably unsuccessful, and they’ve certainly fallen short of the “new beginning” he promised in Cairo in 2009.

That said, it’s also important to recognize that even if Barack Obama had done everything right, things in Egypt might be roughly where they are today. It may be the case that the capacity of the United States to influence events in Egypt was intrinsically limited. The popular movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, after all, was organic; it was not driven by American policy. There’s nothing we could have done to save Mubarak’s rule. And in fact the Obama administration itself stuck with Mubarak until very nearly the end of his rule.

Once the Muslim Brotherhood took over, our ability to dictate how Morsi governed was limited as well, despite the huge aid we give to Egypt. Several administrations attempted to pressure Mubarak, after all, to ease up on his authoritarian ways, with little to show for it. Mr. Morsi was an even tougher nut to crack.

As for what to do now, the issues seem to me to be complex and difficult to sort through. Would it be wise to cut off aid to the Egyptian military after yesterday’s massacres? If we do, won’t that diminish our leverage in the future and alienate the current leadership? As LBJ is purported to have said, they may be bastards–but at least they’re our bastards (at least in comparison to the Muslim Brotherhood).

On the flip side, if we don’t cut off aid, doesn’t that undermine our professed commitment to human rights, free elections and the rule of law? And as Max Boot asks, hasn’t the crackdown demonstrated that we have very little leverage to lose? If we can’t influence the Egyptian military, shouldn’t we at least stand for American principles? 

And what about the Muslim Brotherhood? Should we press for it to be part of a post-military rule coalition? Or would that be unwise and impractical? If not, what should happen to the Brotherhood? Should we view events in Egypt as tragic and unfortunate–but also recognize that the Egyptian military, for all its faults, is vastly superior to the Brotherhood? Shouldn’t we understand that to undermine the military at this moment would be to encourage the Brotherhood to continue to fight to regain power?

I have my own thoughts on these matters, but they are tentative. And they should be. After all, I was among those who was moved by the protests in Tahrir Square in 2011 and hopeful of what a post-Mubarak Egypt would look like. Things turned out a good deal worse than I expected. So modesty in predicting the outcome of events is warranted, at least in my case.

Beyond that I’m reminded, in part because I’ve served in three administrations, that the world is untidy, that events are contingent, and that arguments that sound reasonable and logical when discussing them in the Situation Room often don’t work out in the real world. The difference between being a commentator and working in the White House is that in the case of the latter the consequences of being wrong can be far more durable and damaging.

That doesn’t mean that President Obama, or for that matter any other president, shouldn’t be criticized for his policies and his failures. Nor does it mean Mr. Obama shouldn’t be held accountable for the promises he made before and shortly after he took office, when he seemed to be under the impression that he could shape world events like hot wax. But I for one can’t help having some sympathy for those in the Obama administration who right now are being forced to make decisions about rapidly unfolding events, based on incomplete knowledge, with an imperfect ability to predict the consequences of each course of action. I recall during my years in government being struck by the fact that making the right decision seemed a good deal more obvious when I was on the outside looking in rather than on the inside looking out. 

In an interview in 1962, President Kennedy was asked whether his experience in office matched his expectation and whether things had worked out as he saw in advance. President Kennedy responded this way:

So that I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.

So will the commentators.

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Bolster Military-to-Military Ties with Egypt

I was no fan of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Realist castigation of the White House for abandoning Mubarak is a bit dishonest: Pinning American national security to cancer-stricken octogenarians is seldom a wise long-term strategy.

The Obama administration’s flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood was another thing entirely: Political correctness is annoying at the best of times, for it provides an excuse for dissenters to dismiss based on window-dressing rather than address core ideas that merit debate. It is especially dangerous, however, when true believers embrace political correctness as a doctrine and actually believe the pap that extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements are misunderstood, or that Islamist anti-Americanism is rooted in grievance rather than ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood was aiming to be the Egyptian and Islamist equivalent of the Khmer Rouge. They disdained democracy and their crocodile tears regarding democratic wrongs are nothing but window-dressing.

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I was no fan of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Realist castigation of the White House for abandoning Mubarak is a bit dishonest: Pinning American national security to cancer-stricken octogenarians is seldom a wise long-term strategy.

The Obama administration’s flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood was another thing entirely: Political correctness is annoying at the best of times, for it provides an excuse for dissenters to dismiss based on window-dressing rather than address core ideas that merit debate. It is especially dangerous, however, when true believers embrace political correctness as a doctrine and actually believe the pap that extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements are misunderstood, or that Islamist anti-Americanism is rooted in grievance rather than ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood was aiming to be the Egyptian and Islamist equivalent of the Khmer Rouge. They disdained democracy and their crocodile tears regarding democratic wrongs are nothing but window-dressing.

One of the greatest ironies of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster from power is that Western liberals are more concerned about the injustice suffered by the Brethren than are their one-time funders in the Arab world. While senators and diplomats were beating themselves up about how unfair events were for Mohamed Morsi and crew, it was the Saudis and Emiratis who cut their ties quickly and without regret. Perhaps the pattern is repeating in which the West’s useful idiots believe Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen who say tolerant things in English while those who understand what the Brotherhood is saying in Arabic understand truly for what the group stands.

At any rate, there are two sides in the immediate Egyptian fight, and their demands are mutually exclusive. One will win, and one will lose and, like Jonathan, let us hope for the sake of U.S. national security that the military wins in the short term. That is not to bless military dictatorship, but building up a more liberal and democratic alternative might take years if not decades and that simply would not be possible under a Muslim Brotherhood regime.

Maintaining leverage with the Egyptian military therefore becomes a paramount U.S. interest. The State Department likes to think that they maintain a monopoly over diplomacy, but the reality is that American generals are often better diplomats when the crisis erupts. After all, diplomats have cocktail parties and an occasional conference, but military officers have staff college classes that often last months, if not years. Over the course of a promising officer’s career, he might find himself in class or in exercises with the same foreign officer multiple times. Not surprisingly, friendships develop between families and relationships run deep. That may not be something which President Obama—who has never served in the military—understands. Nor is it something to which Secretary of State John Kerry—who appears to hold the military in disdain—will care to admit. Alas, while Kerry chides the Egyptians and promotes the type of unthinking compromise that a proverbial State Department kindergartener might have formulated, he and Obama appear to be abandoning the one tool with which they can have some leverage: the military-to-military relationship.

First, the U.S. suspended F-16 sales to Egypt—a silly thing to do since such sales aren’t simply about airplanes, but also about long-term training relationships. Next, Obama cancelled the Bright Star exercises, again an opportunity for multiple senior U.S. officers to have quiet tête-à-têtes with their Egyptian counterparts. If the White House truly wanted to restrain the Egyptian army, then that would be a far better way to convey that message rather than putting John Kerry on television, or having a U.S. embassy which has mismanaged its way into irrelevance deliver a demarche. With leverage so fleeting, how unfortunate it is that Obama wants to eliminate what remains.

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The Muslim Brotherhood’s Shameful Nobel Laureate

When Islamist radicals in Pakistan’s tribal territories shot 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousefzai, the world condemned the senseless act of terrorism. The Pakistani Taliban had, like the Chechen Islamists who massacred children in Beslan nearly a decade ago, simply miscalculated that even those prone to support extremists and terrorists draw the line at targeting children (or, at least non-Jewish children).

In the wake of the assassination attempt on the young advocate for girls’ education, there was one so-called peace activist who was noticeably silent: 2011 Nobel Laureate Tawakkul Karman. Karman was selected not only because she was a Yemeni political activist—rising up courageously to challenge the dictatorship of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh—but also because she was affiliated with a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. The head of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee told the Associated Press, “Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy.’ He added that ‘I don’t believe that. There are many signals that, that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.’”

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When Islamist radicals in Pakistan’s tribal territories shot 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousefzai, the world condemned the senseless act of terrorism. The Pakistani Taliban had, like the Chechen Islamists who massacred children in Beslan nearly a decade ago, simply miscalculated that even those prone to support extremists and terrorists draw the line at targeting children (or, at least non-Jewish children).

In the wake of the assassination attempt on the young advocate for girls’ education, there was one so-called peace activist who was noticeably silent: 2011 Nobel Laureate Tawakkul Karman. Karman was selected not only because she was a Yemeni political activist—rising up courageously to challenge the dictatorship of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh—but also because she was affiliated with a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. The head of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee told the Associated Press, “Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy.’ He added that ‘I don’t believe that. There are many signals that, that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.’”

Karman did not hesitate, however, to condemn the Egyptian government’s crackdown in Cairo—even before the recent violence. She found no time to worry about the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Christians or ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s abuse of power, but violence perpetrated against Islamists was, for the Nobel Laureate, another thing entirely.

Herein lies the problem: For too many affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliates, there exists different standards for Islamists and for non-Islamists. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—himself leading a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group—famously exculpated indicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir because the Koran cleared the Sudanese Islamist president. Karman delegitimized herself when she refused to speak up for an innocent school girl targeted by militant Islamists. If she wants us to believe she is an honest broker and carries any weight in her support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood now, she should be quickly disabused of that notion.

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How Can Israel Entrust Its Security to People Who Got Egypt So Wrong?

To the many reasons why the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” are a nonstarter, we can now add another: the situation in Egypt. The problem isn’t just that the chaos on Israel’s previously stable southern border decreases its willingness to take “risks for peace” that could replicate this situation in the West Bank. It’s also what the situation says about the Obama administration’s judgment.

As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros reminds us, when the Egyptian revolution broke out two years ago, the administration sought guidance in historical precedents:

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To the many reasons why the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” are a nonstarter, we can now add another: the situation in Egypt. The problem isn’t just that the chaos on Israel’s previously stable southern border decreases its willingness to take “risks for peace” that could replicate this situation in the West Bank. It’s also what the situation says about the Obama administration’s judgment.

As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros reminds us, when the Egyptian revolution broke out two years ago, the administration sought guidance in historical precedents:

According to the New York Times, President Obama asked his staff to study transitions in more than 50 countries around the world in order to understand and predict where Egypt and other countries in the Middle East might be heading. After extensive study, his staffers predicted “that Egypt is analogous to South Korea, the Philippines and Chile.” Months later, the administration was still confident in its assessment. While aware of the obstacles that were on the way during the desired transition to democracy, Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor was adamant that, “The trajectory of change is in the right direction.”

Needless to say, Egypt turned out nothing like South Korea, the Philippines, or Chile. The Muslim Brotherhood took power, only to prove both so incompetent and so anti-democratic that a year later, the military ousted it by popular demand (anti-Brotherhood demonstrations drew an incredible 14 million people into the streets). The Brotherhood didn’t go quietly, and now there’s a risk that this week’s carnage in Cairo will spark a civil war.

None of this was unpredictable. Indeed, from the very beginning, Israeli officials warned unanimously that nothing good would come of Egypt’s revolution, and most Israeli commentators (myself included) agreed–for which we were roundly condemned by members of America’s foreign-policy establishment. Nor is it really surprising that Israel’s assessments proved more accurate than America’s: What happens in Israel’s immediate neighborhood has far more impact on Israelis’ lives than it does on Americans, and therefore Israelis invest more time and effort in trying to understand it.

Yet now the same people who got Egypt so badly wrong are demanding that Israelis trust them to referee an Israeli-Palestinian deal. The administration even sent a senior general, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan John Allen, “to define Israel’s security requirements” for it–and woe betide Israel if it begs to differ. But actually, President Barack Obama didn’t bother waiting for Allen’s conclusions; he asserted two years ago that the border must be “based on the 1967 lines,” and that this is perfectly compatible with Israel’s security needs. Never mind that no Israeli map of defensible borders has ever agreed.

In other words, the administration has already made clear that it won’t support Israel’s security demands; it expects Israel to bow to its judgment. But the people who thought Egypt’s revolution was going to resemble Chile or South Korea aren’t people whose judgment Israel can possibly rely on to assure its vital security needs. Under this situation, reaching a deal that satisfies Israel’s minimum security needs would be impossible even if all the other issues were somehow magically resolved.

But in fact, Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear he wants to deal with borders and security first. And that means the blow-up won’t be long in coming.

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Why Does the Muslim Brotherhood Attack Churches?

The world is focusing much of its sympathy today on the members of the Muslim Brotherhood that were gunned down in the streets of Cairo by armed police and soldiers seeking to end the Islamist attempt to put Mohamed Morsi back into power. The violence is regrettable and the casualties are widely interpreted as evidence of the brutality of the military regime that toppled Morsi and his Brotherhood regime last month. But the notion that the Brotherhood is the innocent victim of a nasty junta seeking to bring back Mubarak-era authoritarianism is only half right. Though the military government is an unsavory partner for the United States, no one should be under any illusions about the Brotherhood or why the majority of Egyptians (who went to the streets in their millions to support a coup) probably approve of the military’s actions.

Proof of the true nature of the Brotherhood was available for those who read accounts in the last weeks of life at their Cairo encampments that were policed by Islamist thugs with clubs and other weapons. Brotherhood gunmen fought the police in pitched battles. Non-violent civil disobedience isn’t in the Brotherhood playbook. Even more damning was the Brotherhood response elsewhere in Egypt. As the International Business Times reports:

Supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi have attacked churches in Dilga, Menya and Sohag after government security forces backed by armored cars and bulldozers stormed protest camps outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.

The Churches of Abraham and the Virgin Mary in Menya were burning after Morsi supporters set fire to the outside of the building exteriors and smashed through doors. … Muslim Brotherhood members also threw firebombs at Mar Gergiss church in Sohag, a city with a large community of Coptic Christians who represents up to 10 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people, causing it to burn down, the official MENA news agency said. Protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the Bon Pasteur Catholic Church and Monastery in Suez, setting it ablaze and breaking windows.

Why is the Brotherhood attacking churches as part of its argument with the military government?

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The world is focusing much of its sympathy today on the members of the Muslim Brotherhood that were gunned down in the streets of Cairo by armed police and soldiers seeking to end the Islamist attempt to put Mohamed Morsi back into power. The violence is regrettable and the casualties are widely interpreted as evidence of the brutality of the military regime that toppled Morsi and his Brotherhood regime last month. But the notion that the Brotherhood is the innocent victim of a nasty junta seeking to bring back Mubarak-era authoritarianism is only half right. Though the military government is an unsavory partner for the United States, no one should be under any illusions about the Brotherhood or why the majority of Egyptians (who went to the streets in their millions to support a coup) probably approve of the military’s actions.

Proof of the true nature of the Brotherhood was available for those who read accounts in the last weeks of life at their Cairo encampments that were policed by Islamist thugs with clubs and other weapons. Brotherhood gunmen fought the police in pitched battles. Non-violent civil disobedience isn’t in the Brotherhood playbook. Even more damning was the Brotherhood response elsewhere in Egypt. As the International Business Times reports:

Supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi have attacked churches in Dilga, Menya and Sohag after government security forces backed by armored cars and bulldozers stormed protest camps outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.

The Churches of Abraham and the Virgin Mary in Menya were burning after Morsi supporters set fire to the outside of the building exteriors and smashed through doors. … Muslim Brotherhood members also threw firebombs at Mar Gergiss church in Sohag, a city with a large community of Coptic Christians who represents up to 10 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people, causing it to burn down, the official MENA news agency said. Protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the Bon Pasteur Catholic Church and Monastery in Suez, setting it ablaze and breaking windows.

Why is the Brotherhood attacking churches as part of its argument with the military government?

The first reason is because the Christian minority, unlike the military, is vulnerable. Throughout the long year when Egypt suffered under Morsi’s Islamist rule, Christians and their churches were increasingly subject to attacks as the Muslim movement sought to make the position of the religious minority untenable. As the Brotherhood seeks to demonstrate that it is still a viable force in the country’s streets even after its Cairo strongholds are uprooted, expect more attacks on Christians to remind Egyptians that the Islamists are still a force to be reckoned with.

Second, the attacks on churches are not just a regrettable sideshow in what may be soon seen as a civil war as the Islamists seek to regain power after losing in the wake of the massive street protests that encouraged the army to launch the coup that ended Morsi’s rule. Rather, such attacks are an inextricable part of their worldview as they seek to transform Egypt in their own Islamist image. In the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egypt, there is no room for Christians or even secular Muslims. That is why so many in Egypt applauded the coup as perhaps the last chance to save the country from permanent Islamist rule.

The church attacks should remind the West that the stakes in the conflict in Egypt are high. If the U.S. seeks to cripple the military, they won’t be helping the cause of democracy. The Brotherhood may have used a seemingly democratic process to take power in 2012, but they would never have peacefully relinquished it or allowed their opponents to stop them from imposing their will on every aspect of Egyptian society. As difficult as it may be for some high-minded Americans to understand, in this case it is the military and not the protesters in Cairo who are seeking to stop tyranny. Though the military is an unattractive ally, anyone seeking to cut off vital U.S. aid to Egypt should remember that the only alternative to it is the party that is currently burning churches.

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Don’t Back the Wrong Side in Egypt

The resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei as vice president of Egypt’s interim government and the declaration of a state of emergency in the wake of the violence in the streets of Cairo today will, no doubt, add to the pressure on President Obama to cut off aid to the Egyptian military. With hundreds dead and the pretense that the post-coup regime is anything but a rerun of Hosni Mubarak’s military dictatorship debunked, the impulse in Washington will be to express outrage and to say or do something to disassociate the United States from what has happened. After Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham went to Cairo last week and asked the military to avoid a conflict and to negotiate some sort of agreement that would bring the ousted Muslim Brotherhood back into the government, the decision of General al-Sisi to ignore their advice and unleash his troops will be regarded as reason enough to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt.

That is, to some extent, understandable. But it would be a terrible mistake for the administration to do anything that would worsen the burgeoning conflict in Egypt. The coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi as well as the police action in Cairo contradicts American principles as well as specific warnings issued by Washington. But it needs to be reiterated that democracy is not one of the choices available in Egypt. An Obama condemnation of the Egyptian military might make some Americans feel good. But far better would be a presidential acknowledgment that the Arab Spring is over and that the priority is not the resurrection of a fake democracy there but to prevent Islamists from ever getting another chance of imposing their extreme ideology on Egypt or the entire region.

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The resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei as vice president of Egypt’s interim government and the declaration of a state of emergency in the wake of the violence in the streets of Cairo today will, no doubt, add to the pressure on President Obama to cut off aid to the Egyptian military. With hundreds dead and the pretense that the post-coup regime is anything but a rerun of Hosni Mubarak’s military dictatorship debunked, the impulse in Washington will be to express outrage and to say or do something to disassociate the United States from what has happened. After Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham went to Cairo last week and asked the military to avoid a conflict and to negotiate some sort of agreement that would bring the ousted Muslim Brotherhood back into the government, the decision of General al-Sisi to ignore their advice and unleash his troops will be regarded as reason enough to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt.

That is, to some extent, understandable. But it would be a terrible mistake for the administration to do anything that would worsen the burgeoning conflict in Egypt. The coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi as well as the police action in Cairo contradicts American principles as well as specific warnings issued by Washington. But it needs to be reiterated that democracy is not one of the choices available in Egypt. An Obama condemnation of the Egyptian military might make some Americans feel good. But far better would be a presidential acknowledgment that the Arab Spring is over and that the priority is not the resurrection of a fake democracy there but to prevent Islamists from ever getting another chance of imposing their extreme ideology on Egypt or the entire region.

As disturbing as the video coming out of Cairo today may be, it should be remembered that the victims of the military crackdown are not the peaceful democratic protesters that they are sometimes depicted as being. The Brotherhood is a totalitarian Islamist movement that would never have peacefully relinquished power if it had not been overthrown by the military. Though it embraced democracy as a tactic to attain power, it did not and does not believe in it. Its protest sites in Cairo were armed camps, befitting an organization that was always more of an Islamist militia than a political party.

That means that the calls issued by Americans for a peaceful resolution to the standoff were largely meaningless. Nothing short of a full-fledged military operation would have ever persuaded the Brotherhood to go home. Brutal though the attack on these encampments was, the notion that it could have been accomplished by more pacific methods is probably absurd.

The United States should always advocate for democracy and respect for human rights. But it needs to be understood that releasing Morsi or bringing the Brotherhood into a new government would not have advanced those goals. Egypt’s current leaders understand something that President Obama and his foreign policy advisors never have: the struggle in Egypt has always been a zero-sum game in which the choices are reduced to the military or the Brotherhood.

Now is the time for Washington to stay the course and to refuse to give in to the impulse to cut off Egypt. After more than a year of embracing the Brotherhood government of Morsi, it has been hard for Obama to realize that he made a mistake. But if he seeks to punish the Egyptian military for doing exactly what the majority of the Egyptian people want them to do, he will be compounding that error. 

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Egypt’s Return to Military Rule

Governments, understandably, have a history of not tolerating large sit-ins occupying a substantial area in the middle of their capital. But attempts to end such sit-ins have a way of turning out badly. It was not just the Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing in 1989 that ended in a bloodbath. On a lesser level there was Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s heavy-handed dispersal of the Bonus Army, made up of World War I veterans, in Washington in 1932, which forever sullied his image.

Now comes the Egyptian army’s dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo, an attack which has left at least 95 dead (a toll that is certain to grow) and led Mohamed ElBaradei, one of Egypt’s vice presidents, to resign in protest. ElBaradei’s departure from the government, to which he was providing a fig leaf of civil legitimacy, may prove especially significant because it is making the regime in Cairo look increasingly not like a transitional military regime but a permanent military regime.

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Governments, understandably, have a history of not tolerating large sit-ins occupying a substantial area in the middle of their capital. But attempts to end such sit-ins have a way of turning out badly. It was not just the Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing in 1989 that ended in a bloodbath. On a lesser level there was Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s heavy-handed dispersal of the Bonus Army, made up of World War I veterans, in Washington in 1932, which forever sullied his image.

Now comes the Egyptian army’s dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo, an attack which has left at least 95 dead (a toll that is certain to grow) and led Mohamed ElBaradei, one of Egypt’s vice presidents, to resign in protest. ElBaradei’s departure from the government, to which he was providing a fig leaf of civil legitimacy, may prove especially significant because it is making the regime in Cairo look increasingly not like a transitional military regime but a permanent military regime.

This impression is heightened by the fact that 19 out of 25 of the provincial governors just named to office yesterday are generals. Moreover, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who led the military coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi (now being held at a secret site and likely to be tried on treason charges), has not ruled out running for president himself.

It is looking increasingly as if very little has changed since Hosni Mubarak was toppled–except the name of the general in charge. Egypt appears to be returning to military rule, in ways both good (increased cooperation with Israel in rooting out security threats) and bad (increased repression and the heightened risk of a civil war). If this is the way Egypt’s military goes about restoring “democracy,” I would hate to see how it imposes dictatorship.

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Hamas Can’t Be Wished Away in Gaza

Even optimists about the new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks acknowledge that the Hamas problem makes it difficult to imagine an actual agreement coming out of the negotiations. So long as Gaza is ruled by Hamas and Hamas is unwilling to recognize Israel’s existence, let alone its legitimacy, how could any accord survive? But some are seeking to downplay this all-too-obvious flaw in Secretary of State John Kerry’s reasoning in making his diplomatic push by arguing that the Islamist rulers of Gaza (which contains 40 percent of the Arab population of the disputed territories) are either weak or about to fall.

The glass-half-full peace process scenario seems to rest on the assumption that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will get a major boost in popularity if he is able to win, with the help of American pressure, an Israeli withdrawal and an independent state. The hope is that this will render Hamas’s opposition ineffective. An even more wildly optimistic scenario goes so far as to envisage Hamas falling from power or becoming so weak that talk of a merger with Fatah becomes a reality, thus ending the Palestinian schism and easing the way to peace.

Unfortunately, this sort of optimism tells us more about the desire on the part of some in both the United States and Israel to ignore the reality of Palestinian politics than it does about the possibility of regime change in Gaza. For example, even if we take all the assertions in veteran Israeli journalist and author Ehud Yaari’s analysis of the situation in Gaza in the New Republic at face value, there is very little reason to believe that the downturn in Hamas’s fortunes will be translated into it being more amenable to peace or a genuine chance that it will loosen its hold on power.

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Even optimists about the new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks acknowledge that the Hamas problem makes it difficult to imagine an actual agreement coming out of the negotiations. So long as Gaza is ruled by Hamas and Hamas is unwilling to recognize Israel’s existence, let alone its legitimacy, how could any accord survive? But some are seeking to downplay this all-too-obvious flaw in Secretary of State John Kerry’s reasoning in making his diplomatic push by arguing that the Islamist rulers of Gaza (which contains 40 percent of the Arab population of the disputed territories) are either weak or about to fall.

The glass-half-full peace process scenario seems to rest on the assumption that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will get a major boost in popularity if he is able to win, with the help of American pressure, an Israeli withdrawal and an independent state. The hope is that this will render Hamas’s opposition ineffective. An even more wildly optimistic scenario goes so far as to envisage Hamas falling from power or becoming so weak that talk of a merger with Fatah becomes a reality, thus ending the Palestinian schism and easing the way to peace.

Unfortunately, this sort of optimism tells us more about the desire on the part of some in both the United States and Israel to ignore the reality of Palestinian politics than it does about the possibility of regime change in Gaza. For example, even if we take all the assertions in veteran Israeli journalist and author Ehud Yaari’s analysis of the situation in Gaza in the New Republic at face value, there is very little reason to believe that the downturn in Hamas’s fortunes will be translated into it being more amenable to peace or a genuine chance that it will loosen its hold on power.

Yaari is right when he asserts this isn’t the best of times for the Hamas regime. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt is a body blow to the Palestinian group that traces its own origins back to that organization. Though relations with the recently toppled Morsi government were not always smooth, his military successors are openly hostile to Hamas. They have not only shut down the border with Gaza and closed many smuggling tunnels, they have publicly charged Hamas with providing assistance to Brotherhood efforts to subvert the new regime as well as implicating it in violence and murders associated with Morsi’s escape from a Mubarak regime jail in 2011. This has not only deepened its isolation but shut down a vital source of funds.

While significant in and of itself, the loss of Egypt is all the more devastating to Hamas because of its decision to part ways with Iran in the last year. Siding with the Syrian rebels and discarding its formerly close ties with Tehran may have made sense in 2012 for a Hamas that thought it could count on both Egypt and Turkey. Iran was once Hamas’s primary source of both funding and weapons, but the Islamists thought they were better off sticking with the Sunnis against the Shiites. But the ability of the Assad regime to hold onto power in Damascus with the aid of Iran and Hezbollah is making it look as if they backed the wrong horse. With the Turks and the Gulf states that have pledged money to keep Hamas afloat primarily interested in the Syrian struggle these days, Gaza now finds itself more isolated than ever. That has also accentuated the split in the Hamas high command that has always existed between the Gaza leadership and its political bureau abroad.

All this has also strengthened the heretofore-marginal Islamic Jihad terror group that now represents itself as the true face of Palestinian resistance instead of a Hamas that is seen by some radicals as at fault for seeking to preserve the current cease-fire with Israel. As the New York Times reports today, Iran’s increased funding of the group in the wake of its dispute with Hamas over Syria has raised its profile and its ability to compete with the bigger terror group for popularity in Gaza.

But however serious these problems may be, they do not at present constitute anything that comes even close to a mortal threat to Hamas. The group’s iron grip on Gazan society remains undiminished. Though it is broke, even in times of plenty it has always depended on UNRWA, the United Nations agency devoted to aiding and perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, to take care of the strip’s poor.

Moreover, Hamas officials are as capable of seeing which way the wind is blowing in the Middle East as anyone else and have launched diplomatic initiatives to get back into Tehran’s good graces. Though these efforts have, as yet, yielded no concrete results, should they deem it necessary, there is little doubt that Hamas will bend to Iran’s will in order to keep themselves afloat.

Moreover, the expectation that the peace talks will sink Hamas’s standing among Palestinians has it backwards. Should the negotiations succeed, Hamas will be well placed to blast Abbas for betraying the refugees and Palestinian hopes of destroying Israel. Should they fail, they will assail him for groveling to the Jews and America. Either way, they are set up to make political hay and mayhem from Kerry’s folly.

The fantasy of Hamas fading away is just that. In spite of its serious problems, the Islamist group is in no imminent danger. The same can’t be said of its Palestinian rivals and no amount of optimism about the talks can change that.

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The Sputtering Arab Spring

It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

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It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

This can be seen as part of the same struggle now playing out in Egypt and Syria between Islamists and their more secular adversaries. The United States has an obvious stake in the outcome–we don’t want to see a Middle East dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, although we also don’t want to see repressive military regimes that drive their population into terrorism.

This is why it’s vitally important–as Michael Doran and I argued in Foreign Policy magazine–to develop our capacity for waging political warfare, as we did in the early days of the Cold War, when the U.S. helped various anti-Communist forces. Today we should be helping anti-Islamist forces. Instead, because we have let our capacity for political warfare atrophy, we are forced to either send F-16s and Predators to push regime change (as in Libya in 2011) or sit by ineffectually (as in much of the Middle East ever since).

There needs to be a better way–the U.S. needs to be able to overtly and covertly support more moderate and secular forces in the battle over the future of countries such as Libya and Tunisia, where there is an excellent chance of a decent and democratic outcome. Instead the widespread perception is of American retreat, leaving our natural allies at the mercy of radicals.

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Obama and Egypt’s Hamas Connection

The Obama administration’s ambivalence about the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has been obvious. This week, it tiptoed up to the brink of cutting off aid to the Egyptian military that had ousted President Mohammed Morsi but it stopped short of taking that drastic step. Rather than do something that would jeopardize the new government’s stability and send a message that Washington was determined to oust it, Obama and made do with a gesture that would satisfy its desire to express his indignation about the turn of events: the delay of the shipment of four F-16 fighter jets to Cairo. While the administration deserves some restrained applause for at least not doing something to worsen the already dangerous situation in Egypt, the latest developments show that even this slap on the wrist may have been a mistake.

With Brotherhood supporters continuing to take to the streets to demonstrate their anger as violence spread throughout the country, the conflict there has now been exposed as involving not just Egyptian factions but the Hamas terrorists that rule Gaza. And that’s something that Americans looking on from afar ought to be taking into account when they think about where America’s interests lie.

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The Obama administration’s ambivalence about the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has been obvious. This week, it tiptoed up to the brink of cutting off aid to the Egyptian military that had ousted President Mohammed Morsi but it stopped short of taking that drastic step. Rather than do something that would jeopardize the new government’s stability and send a message that Washington was determined to oust it, Obama and made do with a gesture that would satisfy its desire to express his indignation about the turn of events: the delay of the shipment of four F-16 fighter jets to Cairo. While the administration deserves some restrained applause for at least not doing something to worsen the already dangerous situation in Egypt, the latest developments show that even this slap on the wrist may have been a mistake.

With Brotherhood supporters continuing to take to the streets to demonstrate their anger as violence spread throughout the country, the conflict there has now been exposed as involving not just Egyptian factions but the Hamas terrorists that rule Gaza. And that’s something that Americans looking on from afar ought to be taking into account when they think about where America’s interests lie.

Hamas had hoped to exploit the ascent of Morsi and the Brotherhood last year to expand its ties with Egypt and strengthen its strategic position. That didn’t work out quite as well as they had hoped as Morsi was not eager to further complicate his relationship with the Egyptian military by involving the country in any adventures against Israel. Nor was he eager to allow a free flow of arms into Gaza via the smuggling tunnels from Egypt. But the Brotherhood government still allowed the Sinai to devolve into a Wild West situation that was dangerous to both Israel and Egypt. Despite Morsi’s seeming ambivalence, Hamas was a major beneficiary of the fall of the Mubarak’s regime.

Since ousting Morsi, the military has made it clear that the relatively brief era during which it appeared the Islamist rulers have a friend in Cairo is over. They have shut down the tunnels and closed the border with Gaza. Just as important, the military, which has been holding Morsi under arrest since the coup earlier this month, have now charged him with conspiring with Hamas in “hostile acts” against Egypt, a reference to the belief that it was the Islamist terror group’s agents that helped spring him from prison during the last days of Mubarak’s rule while killing police officers and military personnel.

The point is, the new government in Cairo may well have come to power in a coup (though the U.S. is careful not to call it one since that would make it impossible to continue to keep aid flowing) and not be democratic. But it has saved the country from falling, perhaps irrevocably into the grip of an Islamist regime that would have transformed the nation in ways that would have created an era of oppression for liberal and secular Egyptians. Just as important, though there will be no thawing of the ice-cold peace with Israel, the new rulers have shut off Hamas from a source of aid and political influence. The coup not only has preserved peace with Israel but it will make it even harder for Hamas to destabilize the region.

Viewed from this context there is no good reason for the Obama administration to go on sulking about Morsi’s departure or exerting pressure on the Egyptian military to include the Brotherhood in a new government or free Morsi to plot new mayhem in Cairo. If Hamas knows which side it is on in the struggle over Egypt’s future, President Obama should realize there shouldn’t be any doubt about whom the U.S. should be backing.

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The Wrong “Coup” Debate

The Obama administration endured some mockery when it tried to refer to antiterror efforts as “overseas contingency operations” and terrorist attacks as “man-caused disasters.” But there have been far worse symptoms of the same affliction, such as when Susan Rice, at the time working in the Clinton administration, reportedly worried about calling the Rwandan genocide a “genocide,” reasoning that “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional midterm] election?”

Euphemism and terminology are again at the forefront of foreign-policy decision making, this time, as Max referenced yesterday, with regard to whether the U.S. should continue supplying Egypt with military and economic aid. If you support continuing the aid but don’t want to cross the U.S. law that says the Egyptian coup would automatically trigger a suspension of aid, what are your options? The first is to do what the Obama administration is doing, and not call it a coup. But some congressional Republicans have a second idea, according to Reuters:

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The Obama administration endured some mockery when it tried to refer to antiterror efforts as “overseas contingency operations” and terrorist attacks as “man-caused disasters.” But there have been far worse symptoms of the same affliction, such as when Susan Rice, at the time working in the Clinton administration, reportedly worried about calling the Rwandan genocide a “genocide,” reasoning that “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional midterm] election?”

Euphemism and terminology are again at the forefront of foreign-policy decision making, this time, as Max referenced yesterday, with regard to whether the U.S. should continue supplying Egypt with military and economic aid. If you support continuing the aid but don’t want to cross the U.S. law that says the Egyptian coup would automatically trigger a suspension of aid, what are your options? The first is to do what the Obama administration is doing, and not call it a coup. But some congressional Republicans have a second idea, according to Reuters:

U.S. lawmakers will begin to vote as soon as next week on legislation that could continue aid to Egypt even if the Obama administration determines that the ouster of elected President Mohamed Mursi was a military coup, lawmakers and aides said on Thursday….

Republican U.S. Representative Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House of Representatives subcommittee in charge of the aid, said her panel could consider allowing more flexibility, such as language that would allow the aid to continue if doing so were deemed to be in the U.S. national security interest.

Granger said she is not considering changing the coup language but that it was possible for Congress to change it to make it more flexible.

“There is not a waiver (provision) in the coup legislation,” Granger told Reuters in an interview. “That could be changed, however, if the Congress says we are going to allow a waiver.”

This may sound like an easy out, but there are drawbacks. Giving the president the power to waive foreign-policy laws when he doesn’t want to follow them renders the law itself extraneous: laws, like ethical principles, prove their worth when they are difficult to heed. The granting of a waiver for a specific purpose may sound limited, but it sets a precedent that will be repeated. Whether something is in the nation’s interest or constitutes a crisis is open to interpretation.

But leaving the law as-is presents its own problems, not least of which is that our officials begin to sound ridiculous by never calling anything by its name. That eventually takes its toll on policy as well, because it renders governance in Orwellian terms and habituates the practice of intentionally misleading the public. And the president is the elected commander in chief and deserves a certain amount of deference in conducting foreign policy according to his convictions.

But the Obama administration has more to worry about with perceived neutrality than whether to call this a coup. Supporters of the administration’s foreign policy have defended Obama on realist grounds that America should work with whomever comes out on top of the power struggle in Egypt rather than try to influence the outcome. When the Arab Spring first swept through Egypt, the administration waited for the dust to settle and then accepted the facts on the ground. But the military’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi has signaled that Egypt is in the midst of something far more dangerous and unstable than a simple power struggle. It seems to have entered a cycle of unrest and popular rebellion. The dust just won’t settle.

That’s why, strategically, whether the administration calls Morsi’s overthrow a “coup” is beside the point. If Obama calls it a coup, he will appear to side with Morsi. If he doesn’t, he will appear to side with the military. Suspending the aid now will send the wrong signal, because whatever the president does will be seen as a response to the events that immediately preceded it. He needn’t be seen as for or against the military, but he ought to be clearly opposed to perpetual military rule or antidemocratic backsliding. The point, then, is not about identifying coups, but preventing them and the conditions in which they materialize.

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Outrage Lacking on Religious Persecution

The news today from Egypt ought to send a shiver down the spines of all Americans. The protests of millions of Egyptians against the Brotherhood and their leader Mohamed Morsi backed up by the military may have derailed the attempt to transform Egypt into an Islamist state. But the Brotherhood is, as should have been expected, far from finished. The prospect of a counter-revolt or even a long-term Islamist insurgency should not be discounted. But whether or not the Brotherhood can find a way to counter the efforts of the military as well as secular and liberal Egyptians to keep them out of power, the Islamist group is lashing out at a familiar scapegoat: the country’s Christian minority.

As the New York Times reports this afternoon, the Coptic community is bearing the brunt of the Brotherhood’s resentment about the reversal of fortune in Cairo:

Since Mr. Morsi’s ouster on July 3, the activists say, a priest has been shot dead in the street, Islamists have painted black X’s on Christian shops to mark them for arson and angry mobs have attacked churches and besieged Christians in their homes. Four Christians were reported slaughtered with knives and machetes in one village last week.

The attacks have hit across the country, in the northern Sinai Peninsula, in a resort town on the Mediterranean coast, in Port Said along the Suez Canal and in isolated villages in upper Egypt.

Given the way Christians were increasingly targeted for violence—including an attack on their main cathedral—while Morsi was in power, it is hardly surprising that a movement that is determined to squelch all opposition to the creation of a purely theocratic state would focus their attention on the Copts. But while we would hope that the military—which has often been slow to protect Christians—will crack down hard on these outbreaks, these incidents should also prompt not only a strong response from President Obama but also outrage from Americans. Unfortunately, as weak as the administration’s response to events in Egypt has been, there’s also no sign that this apathy toward the fate of religious minorities in the Middle East is something that most Americans care about.

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The news today from Egypt ought to send a shiver down the spines of all Americans. The protests of millions of Egyptians against the Brotherhood and their leader Mohamed Morsi backed up by the military may have derailed the attempt to transform Egypt into an Islamist state. But the Brotherhood is, as should have been expected, far from finished. The prospect of a counter-revolt or even a long-term Islamist insurgency should not be discounted. But whether or not the Brotherhood can find a way to counter the efforts of the military as well as secular and liberal Egyptians to keep them out of power, the Islamist group is lashing out at a familiar scapegoat: the country’s Christian minority.

As the New York Times reports this afternoon, the Coptic community is bearing the brunt of the Brotherhood’s resentment about the reversal of fortune in Cairo:

Since Mr. Morsi’s ouster on July 3, the activists say, a priest has been shot dead in the street, Islamists have painted black X’s on Christian shops to mark them for arson and angry mobs have attacked churches and besieged Christians in their homes. Four Christians were reported slaughtered with knives and machetes in one village last week.

The attacks have hit across the country, in the northern Sinai Peninsula, in a resort town on the Mediterranean coast, in Port Said along the Suez Canal and in isolated villages in upper Egypt.

Given the way Christians were increasingly targeted for violence—including an attack on their main cathedral—while Morsi was in power, it is hardly surprising that a movement that is determined to squelch all opposition to the creation of a purely theocratic state would focus their attention on the Copts. But while we would hope that the military—which has often been slow to protect Christians—will crack down hard on these outbreaks, these incidents should also prompt not only a strong response from President Obama but also outrage from Americans. Unfortunately, as weak as the administration’s response to events in Egypt has been, there’s also no sign that this apathy toward the fate of religious minorities in the Middle East is something that most Americans care about.

It’s a shocking yet all-but-inarguable truth that the rest of the world has been largely content to stand by indifferently as Muslim extremists have targeted religious minorities throughout the Middle East. All too many Western Christians seem to consider their co-religionists to be strictly on their own when it comes to dealing with Islamists.

As New York’s Catholic leader, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, wrote last month in the New York Daily News:

Religious persecution isn’t just something from the history books. The early 21st century will go down as an age of martyrs, and the situation is only getting worse. It’s hard to believe, but today, more than a billion people live under governments that suppress religious liberty.

In many nations, the lack of religious freedom is a matter of life and death. Believers and non-believers alike suffer as a result of intolerance.

The news is grim. Two Orthodox archbishops on a mission of mercy are kidnapped in Syria. The ancient Christian community of Iraq is alarmingly reduced in the wake of the war. Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are used to intimidate Christians and other religious minorities with the death penalty. And churches are bombed in Nigeria on Christmas and Easter. Shockingly, some 150,000 Christians are killed for their faith each year.

The United States has paid lip service to this issue with a Commission on International Religious Persecution that issues reports, but the gap between rhetoric and policy has often been lacking. The problem isn’t that we don’t know what’s going on so much as the general lack of interest in prioritizing this issue.

That must change.

What is needed is not so much a new set of policy pronouncements but a genuine sense of anger on the part of Americans about the possibility that ten percent of Egypt’s population will be subjected to pogroms. Rather than the chattering classes worrying about the deposition of Morsi being a blow to the cause of Egyptian democracy—a ridiculous charge since there was nothing democratic about the way the Brotherhood went about consolidating power since Morsi’s election—the question of the safety of religious minorities ought to be our top concern. If that fails to materialize, the Islamists will have been sent a message to the effect that the West doesn’t care about religious persecution. No one should pretend that such silence wouldn’t constitute complicity in what will follow.

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Bring Anne Patterson Home

Anne Patterson is the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and, fairly or unfairly, has become the target of ire for many of the Egyptian protestors. Josh Rogin and Eli Lake have a useful piece today in the Daily Beast describing how Patterson reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood and how she ended up antagonizing many of those taking to the streets to protest President Mohamed Morsi’s rule. They conclude:

Now Patterson may be up for a promotion that would take her out of Cairo; President Obama has reportedly considered nominating her to be the next assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs. But the prospective confirmation process would likely be complicated by her recent notoriety, which could scare the White House away from going through with the move. “Even if the Egyptians blame Anne as a symbol of purported messages that in hindsight seem ill advised, one hopes the White House would not punish her for carrying out faithfully its bidding,” one former administration official said. “I do wince in reading her public remarks on June 18. I’m sure she herself would edit those remarks, if she could. But even if the Egyptian people now see her and judge her activities only in the context of those remarks, Washington can surely have a more sophisticated understanding of the role she played.”

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Anne Patterson is the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and, fairly or unfairly, has become the target of ire for many of the Egyptian protestors. Josh Rogin and Eli Lake have a useful piece today in the Daily Beast describing how Patterson reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood and how she ended up antagonizing many of those taking to the streets to protest President Mohamed Morsi’s rule. They conclude:

Now Patterson may be up for a promotion that would take her out of Cairo; President Obama has reportedly considered nominating her to be the next assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs. But the prospective confirmation process would likely be complicated by her recent notoriety, which could scare the White House away from going through with the move. “Even if the Egyptians blame Anne as a symbol of purported messages that in hindsight seem ill advised, one hopes the White House would not punish her for carrying out faithfully its bidding,” one former administration official said. “I do wince in reading her public remarks on June 18. I’m sure she herself would edit those remarks, if she could. But even if the Egyptian people now see her and judge her activities only in the context of those remarks, Washington can surely have a more sophisticated understanding of the role she played.”

Perhaps Patterson should not be punished—especially if she was following a policy, however misguided, that was dictated to her from above. But career diplomats should serve not to attain their highest ambitions, but to most effectively represent the United States. In that respect, they should be no different that career military officers, most of whom take assignments based on what is needed at the time and not what will look best on their resume or most please their families. Egypt is an important country, and the only question that the State Department and White House should consider is whether, given the events of the past month, Patterson is able to effectively represent the United States at this time. It would be hard to answer that question in any way other than no. In which case, it’s time for Patterson to pack, and for President Obama to appoint a seasoned diplomat without as much baggage to take her place.

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Aid to Egypt Is a Small Price to Pay to Prevent War

The Republican foreign policy establishment, headed by luminaries such as Senator John McCain and former White House official Elliott Abrams, is urging an immediate cutoff of U.S. military aid to Egypt in response to the country’s revolution-cum-coup. The Obama administration has demurred, saying “it would not be wise to abruptly change our assistance program,” and vowed to take its time in deciding whether what happened legally mandates an aid cutoff, given the “significant consequences that go along with this determination.” 

For once, official Israel is wholeheartedly on Obama’s side. Senior Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down spent hours on the phone with their American counterparts this weekend to argue against an aid cutoff, and Israeli diplomats in Washington have been ordered to make this case to Congress as well. Israel’s reasoning is simple: An aid cutoff will make the volatile situation on its southern border even worse–and that is bad not only for Israel, but for one of America’s major interests in the region: upholding the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

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The Republican foreign policy establishment, headed by luminaries such as Senator John McCain and former White House official Elliott Abrams, is urging an immediate cutoff of U.S. military aid to Egypt in response to the country’s revolution-cum-coup. The Obama administration has demurred, saying “it would not be wise to abruptly change our assistance program,” and vowed to take its time in deciding whether what happened legally mandates an aid cutoff, given the “significant consequences that go along with this determination.” 

For once, official Israel is wholeheartedly on Obama’s side. Senior Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down spent hours on the phone with their American counterparts this weekend to argue against an aid cutoff, and Israeli diplomats in Washington have been ordered to make this case to Congress as well. Israel’s reasoning is simple: An aid cutoff will make the volatile situation on its southern border even worse–and that is bad not only for Israel, but for one of America’s major interests in the region: upholding the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

To understand why, it’s important to realize that most Egyptians view the U.S. aid as “a kind of payment” for keeping the peace. Though the aid isn’t part of the treaty, it began immediately after the treaty was signed, and for 34 years, the only condition on its continuance has been continuation of the treaty. Thus Israel fears that ending the aid would erode Egyptian support for the treaty–and especially that of the army, which would be the main victim of the cutoff. Since the army is not only Egypt’s de facto ruler, but also the treaty’s main supporter in a country where most people would rather scrap it, that would clearly be undesirable.           

What makes it downright dangerous, however, is the situation in Sinai. The army recently beefed up its forces in Sinai in an effort to suppress Islamist terror there, a move Israel obviously welcomed. Nevertheless, Sinai is low priority for the military compared to cities like Cairo and Alexandria. Thus given the perceived linkage between the aid and the treaty, an aid cutoff would likely make the army feel perfectly justified in removing those troops and ceasing its efforts to uphold its main treaty obligation: keeping peace along the border. And having already halted the aid, Washington would have no leverage to prevent this.

That would almost certainly lead to increased terror along Israel’s border. But the real danger, as I’ve explained before, is that cross-border attacks could easily spark an Israeli-Egyptian war that nobody wants–including the U.S. Since the Israeli army will naturally try to stop such attacks, there’s always a risk of Egyptians being accidentally killed in the cross-fire, which in turn would spur angry mobs in Egypt to demand revenge–exactly as happened in August 2011. That attack was an isolated incident, so sanity prevailed. But the more cross-border attacks there are, the more likely it is that one will inadvertently trigger a war.

This is especially true because, as Lee Smith argued last week, a war against Israel would be the one sure way to unite a dangerously divided Egyptian nation: The only thing most Egyptians agree on is that Israel is an “enemy” and a “threat.”           

Continuing the aid is thus a small price to pay for preventing another Mideast war. And that’s something all Americans should be able to understand.

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What Will Happen to the Suez Canal?

The major U.S. interest and, indeed, the main international interest in Egypt is the fate of the Suez Canal—built by the French and completed in 1869, and then overseen by the British in the wake of the 1879-1882 ‘Urabi revolt until finally nationalized by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. Not only does commercial shipping pass through the Suez Canal, but so too do U.S. warships heading toward the Persian Gulf.

Oil has already spiked on fears that the uprising in Egypt could interrupt shipping in the Suez. Any unrest is always troubling, but if past precedent means anything, then much of the worry is unfounded. Certainly, the Egyptian chapter of the Arab Spring brought instability to the Sinai. Bedouins upset at the Egyptian central government and extremists upset at the idea of supplying gas to Israel (and Jordan), no matter how much the Egyptian government needs the cash, have bombed the Arab Gas Pipeline a number of times since 2011. But throughout all the chaos, the Egyptian army and police have secured the Suez Canal. No tourist let alone an Egyptian can get close to the canal without getting stopped by the police and questioned. In a country where factories sit idle and the tourist industry has dried up, the Egyptians recognize just how important the hard currency generated by the Suez can be.

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The major U.S. interest and, indeed, the main international interest in Egypt is the fate of the Suez Canal—built by the French and completed in 1869, and then overseen by the British in the wake of the 1879-1882 ‘Urabi revolt until finally nationalized by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. Not only does commercial shipping pass through the Suez Canal, but so too do U.S. warships heading toward the Persian Gulf.

Oil has already spiked on fears that the uprising in Egypt could interrupt shipping in the Suez. Any unrest is always troubling, but if past precedent means anything, then much of the worry is unfounded. Certainly, the Egyptian chapter of the Arab Spring brought instability to the Sinai. Bedouins upset at the Egyptian central government and extremists upset at the idea of supplying gas to Israel (and Jordan), no matter how much the Egyptian government needs the cash, have bombed the Arab Gas Pipeline a number of times since 2011. But throughout all the chaos, the Egyptian army and police have secured the Suez Canal. No tourist let alone an Egyptian can get close to the canal without getting stopped by the police and questioned. In a country where factories sit idle and the tourist industry has dried up, the Egyptians recognize just how important the hard currency generated by the Suez can be.

When ships pass through the canal—from small craft up to U.S. aircraft carriers—they take onto their bridge Egyptian pilots to navigate through the passage. No one in their right mind would call the Egyptian pilots professional in demeanor: They smoke, personify ornery, and solicit bribes of cigarettes, baseball caps, and other goods. But they did that before the Arab Spring and did not change their behavior under the Muslim Brotherhood regime. The future is uncertain. Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl is right to sound the warning about how none of the instances in which mobs have cheered coups have actually resulted in liberal democracy. While governance in Egypt is uncertain for now, at least, worst-case fears regarding security in the Suez Canal appear unfounded.

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Why Do U.S. Embassies Bungle Twitter?

Back in September, as Egyptian rioters sought to attack the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, allegedly over a video depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, the embassy tweeted out a note effectively condemning the controversial speech rather than those who would resort to violence against it. There followed confusion in both the embassy and the State Department about free speech, American values, and the appropriateness of apologies.

It would not be the last twitter controversy for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Two months ago, after Egyptian police arrested a satirist who had poked fun at the Islamist government, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to a Jon Stewart episode in which the American comic condemned the arrest of his Egyptian equivalent. That evidently upset the Egyptian government even more. Rather than stand up once again for free speech, diplomats caved, and the embassy temporarily disabled its Twitter feed, deleting the offending tweet.

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Back in September, as Egyptian rioters sought to attack the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, allegedly over a video depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, the embassy tweeted out a note effectively condemning the controversial speech rather than those who would resort to violence against it. There followed confusion in both the embassy and the State Department about free speech, American values, and the appropriateness of apologies.

It would not be the last twitter controversy for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Two months ago, after Egyptian police arrested a satirist who had poked fun at the Islamist government, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to a Jon Stewart episode in which the American comic condemned the arrest of his Egyptian equivalent. That evidently upset the Egyptian government even more. Rather than stand up once again for free speech, diplomats caved, and the embassy temporarily disabled its Twitter feed, deleting the offending tweet.

Now it seems the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, is getting in on the act. Many Middle Eastern rulers incite anti-Americanism in order to bolster their own popularity, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no different. After having precipitated a revolt through a combination of arrogance and undemocratic tendencies, Erdoğan sought to downplay the police violence by suggesting—falsely—that the United States is far more brutal in its alleged suppression of political protests.

In response to Erdoğan’s false claim that American police had killed 17 protestors breaking up Occupy Wall Street camps, the U.S. Embassy tweeted, “Reports related to the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement are inaccurate. No U.S. deaths resulted from police actions in #OWS.”  The tweet signified how embassies should use Twitter: An instant response to correct a calumny.

It seems, however, that calling out Erdoğan for his outright lie was too undiplomatic for the embassy, which subsequently deleted the tweet. Alas, it seems that Ambassador Francis Ricciardone—infamous for his pro-Mubarak sycophancy while posted in Cairo—still confuses responsibility to protect America’s interests with ingratiation to foreign leaders.

It would be easy to blame technology for the embassies’ Twitter missteps, but it would be wrong. Twitter simply highlights in near-real time the State Department’s curious moral calculus. Perhaps it’s time for remedial education for America’s foreign servicemen and women: The lessons should not be hard: It neither is appropriate to apologize for free speech nor is violence in response to such speech ever justified. Nor should any ambassador hesitate when defending America against the rants of an anti-American ruler.

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Egypt’s Self-Defeating Scapegoating

A few days ago I blogged about an article written by a former Pakistani official, Akbar Ahmed, who attributes the growing strength of Islamist militants in his country to America’s program of drone strikes. Since then an Egypt court has convicted 43 foreign NGO workers of operating without a licensing and receiving foreign financing while they worked to promote democracy in Egypt. What’s the connection between these two events?

Both reflect the unfortunate pattern in the Muslim world of blaming outsiders–especially Westerners–for all their problems. The Egyptian authorities are widely suspected of launching their prosecution in order to deflect attention from all the terrible news since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian economy is in freefall and law and order is breaking down. Instead of confronting these problems in a serious fashion, the Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates the Egyptian government, would prefer to scapegoat foreign NGO workers for supposedly undermining Egyptian institutions. In much the same way Akbar Ahmed and many other Pakistanis would prefer to ignore the deep ills of their society–principally, as in Egypt, a corrupt, ineffective government that cannot tend to the basic needs of its people, from security to education–and instead blame outsiders, in their case the dread Americans and their high-tech drones.

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A few days ago I blogged about an article written by a former Pakistani official, Akbar Ahmed, who attributes the growing strength of Islamist militants in his country to America’s program of drone strikes. Since then an Egypt court has convicted 43 foreign NGO workers of operating without a licensing and receiving foreign financing while they worked to promote democracy in Egypt. What’s the connection between these two events?

Both reflect the unfortunate pattern in the Muslim world of blaming outsiders–especially Westerners–for all their problems. The Egyptian authorities are widely suspected of launching their prosecution in order to deflect attention from all the terrible news since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian economy is in freefall and law and order is breaking down. Instead of confronting these problems in a serious fashion, the Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates the Egyptian government, would prefer to scapegoat foreign NGO workers for supposedly undermining Egyptian institutions. In much the same way Akbar Ahmed and many other Pakistanis would prefer to ignore the deep ills of their society–principally, as in Egypt, a corrupt, ineffective government that cannot tend to the basic needs of its people, from security to education–and instead blame outsiders, in their case the dread Americans and their high-tech drones.

This is a pattern that Bernard Lewis, Fouad Ajami, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Michael Doran, and other respected scholars of the Islamic world have been writing about for years. The Arab Spring seemed to represent a welcome break from this dysfunctional habit of denial. The demonstrations in the streets were, if nothing else, a recognition by millions of Arabs that their problems begin at home, with their own governments. Israel, the United States, and other convenient scapegoats were seldom if ever mentioned by the crowds gathering in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or other locales. But this realization appears to have been temporary and fleeting, and now many in the Islamic world continue to look for scapegoats rather than confronting their own domestic ills head-on.

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Morsi’s Brazen Message to Obama

After Hosni Mubarak’s reign finally ended there was the immediate concern that the army would work with the Muslim Brotherhood to hold early elections that would help them consolidate power. And of course, that is exactly what happened. But it seemed not only expected but inevitable, because Mubarak’s legacy was a barren political environment in which only the Brotherhood had the organization and manpower to step into the vacuum.

One (fair) criticism of the Bush administration’s efforts to promote democracy is that it relied too much on elections when the institutions of civil society were not yet in place. That was the case when the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi became president and he had no civil society to compete with. And he, unsurprisingly, would like to keep it that way. Today an Egyptian court handed down a guilty verdict to at least 16 Americans among 43 NGO workers accused of subverting the government. The New York Times reports:

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After Hosni Mubarak’s reign finally ended there was the immediate concern that the army would work with the Muslim Brotherhood to hold early elections that would help them consolidate power. And of course, that is exactly what happened. But it seemed not only expected but inevitable, because Mubarak’s legacy was a barren political environment in which only the Brotherhood had the organization and manpower to step into the vacuum.

One (fair) criticism of the Bush administration’s efforts to promote democracy is that it relied too much on elections when the institutions of civil society were not yet in place. That was the case when the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi became president and he had no civil society to compete with. And he, unsurprisingly, would like to keep it that way. Today an Egyptian court handed down a guilty verdict to at least 16 Americans among 43 NGO workers accused of subverting the government. The New York Times reports:

Most of the Americans were sentenced in absentia because they had long left the country, including Sam LaHood, son of the U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. He received a five-year jail term.

The only American defendant still in Egypt was Robert Becker, who was sentenced to two years. Becker has maintained that his refusal to flee Egypt with fellow Americans who were in the country at the time of the crackdown on nonprofit groups was to show solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues….

The verdict, read out by judge Makram Awad, also ordered the closure of the offices and seizure of the assets in Egypt belonging to the U.S. nonprofit groups as well as one German organization for which the defendants worked. These are the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, a center for training journalists, and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

The fact that most of the Americans were able to leave the country before the verdict and sentencing were announced is an indication that the point wasn’t to actually jail Americans as much as it was to close NGOs and stop any development of Egyptian civil society in its tracks.

The charges stem from the military-backed caretaker government in the wake of Mubarak’s fall. But it’s exactly the message Morsi would like to send. Last week, Morsi presented to the Egyptian senate his proposed law tightening regulations on NGOs which would subject groups’ funding to the Morsi government’s approval. Human rights groups objected to the law saying it would enable Morsi to stop the flow of funding to groups he doesn’t like under the guise of federal regulation.

It is not meant to even get to that point, of course, as the law is a signal to Morsi’s critics to cool it–as is the coincidentally-timed verdict. “The NGO law, if anything, confirms the view of the NGOs that we’ve had in this trial,” the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch told the Wall Street Journal. “It views NGOs operating in Egypt as potential foreign agents.”

The Journal also reports: “Mr. Shaheed, the NGO attorney, said he had expected the judge to eventually acquit all 43 NGO workers because of the politicized nature of the case.” In other words, he didn’t think the Egyptian court would convict the son of a member of President Obama’s Cabinet after a sham trial on trumped-up charges, considering the fact that Egypt depends so heavily on American aid. The sheer brazenness of it caught him by surprise. The Journal didn’t ask Shaheed whether he was also surprised by Morsi’s NGO law, introduced within days of the court verdict to make sure the West got the message.

And what message will Obama send back to Morsi? The Times reminds readers not only of the $1 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid from the U.S. to Egypt each year, but also that American “leverage can be decisive in determining whether the International Monetary Fund gives Egypt a $4.8 billion loan to kick start its ailing economy. While the proposed loan can only meet some of Egypt’s pressing needs, it would unlock billions of dollars in pledged aid by Gulf Arab nations and Europe.”

While the court ruling was an unnecessary insult to the countries involved, Morsi’s anti-civil society law is more significant to U.S.-Egyptian relations and more relevant to what the U.S. decides to do with all that money it was planning to hand over to Morsi. That’s because while the court case stemmed from a post-Mubarak incident tied to the military’s transitional rule, the crackdown on civil society is designed to stymie political freedom and prevent the roots of democracy from ever taking hold.

That’s something for Obama to consider going forward. Morsi’s consolidated power is not a limited emergency measure to keep order from crumbling into anarchy. It’s an expression of his goal to ensure Egyptians never attain the freedom and opportunity they were denied under Mubarak. “Egypt has played a pivotal role in human history for over 6,000 years,” Obama said when Mubarak stepped down. “But over the last few weeks, the wheel of history turned at a blinding pace as the Egyptian people demanded their universal rights.” Those are rights they won’t get if Morsi gets his way–a point Egypt’s new strongman is trying to make as clear as possible.

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The Consequences of an Assad Victory

Now that we refer to the timeline of the Syrian civil war in years instead of days or months, it can be difficult to perceive singular turning points. But the reports coming today out of Homs Province on the battle over the strategic city of Qusayr seem to be describing just that. As the New York Times notes, the battle, which is pitting the Syrian government’s forces and Hezbollah against Syrian rebels, has resulted thus far in government control over more than half the city for the first time.

The importance of Qusayr can be gleaned from the Washington Post’s essential story from May 11 as well. “All [Assad’s forces] need now,” a Syrian analyst tells reporter Liz Sly, “is to hold the coast, Homs and Damascus, where the institutions of governance are.” The Assad regime has stabilized, and the portrait being painted now is one in which the outcome of the conflict is more likely than not to be a Syria with Bashar al-Assad still in power controlling most of the country except for some jihadist-run enclaves. But it would be a mistake to consider this a return to the status quo. In many ways, the perpetuation of current trends is going to yield a balance of power very different from the pre-war one.

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Now that we refer to the timeline of the Syrian civil war in years instead of days or months, it can be difficult to perceive singular turning points. But the reports coming today out of Homs Province on the battle over the strategic city of Qusayr seem to be describing just that. As the New York Times notes, the battle, which is pitting the Syrian government’s forces and Hezbollah against Syrian rebels, has resulted thus far in government control over more than half the city for the first time.

The importance of Qusayr can be gleaned from the Washington Post’s essential story from May 11 as well. “All [Assad’s forces] need now,” a Syrian analyst tells reporter Liz Sly, “is to hold the coast, Homs and Damascus, where the institutions of governance are.” The Assad regime has stabilized, and the portrait being painted now is one in which the outcome of the conflict is more likely than not to be a Syria with Bashar al-Assad still in power controlling most of the country except for some jihadist-run enclaves. But it would be a mistake to consider this a return to the status quo. In many ways, the perpetuation of current trends is going to yield a balance of power very different from the pre-war one.

If Assad does indeed retain power, it will bolster Iran’s influence in Syria and Lebanon because of the role played by the Iranian client Hezbollah. It will strengthen Iran’s hand in negotiations with the West, increase Iran’s threat to Israel, and encourage Iranian adventurism and expansionism thanks to President Obama’s penchant for lobbing empty threats. It will be more difficult to isolate Syria not only because of Iran’s increased influence across the region but because Russia will have taken a more public stance in support of the Assad regime. Additionally, if the U.S. plays any role in an armistice that leaves Assad in power the Obama administration will have endorsed Assad’s continued rule.

The other major difference between pre-war Syria and this vision of post-war Syria is the presence of Islamist extremists. Pre-war Syria was a police state with Assad firmly in control. There may have been jihadists there unconnected to the Assad regime, but not nearly to the extent there will be going forward. If the Post’s story is an accurate preview, post-war Syria will have jihadist carve-outs similar to Hezbollah’s center of control in south Lebanon. That will only further destabilize Lebanon and virtually assure some sustained low-level conflict in Syria even after an armistice is signed. (Ironically, it may bear some resemblance to Russia’s fight with Islamist extremists in the Caucasus.)

Strategically for the U.S., there is a difference between a jihadist safe haven in a country whose government cooperates with us to some extent, like Yemen or even Pakistan (the latter having the advantage of at least bordering on a state with U.S. troops–for now), and a jihadist safe haven operating out of a state like Syria. Such jihadists may be beyond the West’s reach, but they won’t be disconnected from Qatari cash. American strategists may think the Qatari link can stand in for our own, but the Qataris have been playing the U.S. and will continue to do so, and will now have a hand in influencing anti-Western extremists in Gaza, Syria, and, as the Wall Street Journal is reporting, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government.

The Times report closes on this note:

Mr. Assad, according to people who have spoken with him, believes that reasserting his hold in the province is crucial to maintaining control of a string of population centers in western Syria, and eventually to military campaigns to retake rebel-held territory in the north and east. Many analysts say that it is unlikely that the government will be able to regain control of those areas, but that it could consolidate its grip on the west, leading to a de facto division of the country.

Such a division would collapse whatever nominal independence Lebanon has because the Assad regime, buoyed by its military alliance with Hezbollah, would control areas that border on Lebanon. It would give Syria renewed control over Lebanese territory and expand Hezbollah’s reach as well. That might be a fair trade for Assad, but it wouldn’t be for Western interests. If Assad loses territory in Syria’s north or east, those areas may become Islamist operating bases near American allies–Iraq and to some extent Jordan to the east and southeast, Turkey to the north. The latter is a NATO ally with a predilection for funding some Islamic terror groups while fighting others.

Turkey has threatened to invoke NATO’s common defense obligations during the Syrian civil war, but is more likely to join Qatar in funding the jihadists on its border, if only to co-opt them instead of fight them. The danger posed by a permanent, well-funded, battle-scarred jihadist presence near Jordan is quite obvious, though seemingly underappreciated by too many in the West. It may be too late for any resolution that does not leave Assad in power, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking such an outcome would simply turn back the clock to 2011.

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