Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egypt

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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The “Moderate” Muslim Brotherhood and the Jews

Middle East analyst Tom Gross brings to my attention this news snippet from Qatar:

The Egyptian Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most respected figures in Sunni Islam, refused to attend the inter-faith dialogue conference that opened in Doha last week on the grounds that Jewish representatives had been invited. “I decided not to participate so I wouldn’t sit at the same platform alongside Jews,” Qaradawi told the “Al-Arab” daily of Qatar.

Al-Qaradawi, a Muslim Brotherhood acolyte, has become one of the most famous clerics in the Sunni world because of his gig as the main religion go-to guy for Al Jazeera. For many in the West, he is amoderate,” and indeed was once welcomed into the United Kingdom on those grounds, despite his infamous endorsement of suicide attacks in the wake of 9/11.

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Middle East analyst Tom Gross brings to my attention this news snippet from Qatar:

The Egyptian Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most respected figures in Sunni Islam, refused to attend the inter-faith dialogue conference that opened in Doha last week on the grounds that Jewish representatives had been invited. “I decided not to participate so I wouldn’t sit at the same platform alongside Jews,” Qaradawi told the “Al-Arab” daily of Qatar.

Al-Qaradawi, a Muslim Brotherhood acolyte, has become one of the most famous clerics in the Sunni world because of his gig as the main religion go-to guy for Al Jazeera. For many in the West, he is amoderate,” and indeed was once welcomed into the United Kingdom on those grounds, despite his infamous endorsement of suicide attacks in the wake of 9/11.

Some analysts insist on describing the Arab-Israeli conflict as the core grievance in the Middle East. Anything else is tangential, the thinking goes, until diplomats can force Israel to make enough concessions to the Palestinians and perhaps other Arabs in order to bring peace. Once the grievance is addressed, the reason for terrorism and Islamic radicalism will fade away.

For many in the region, however, the problem is not Israel but rather the existence of non-Muslims and especially Jews in the region and beyond. In October 2002, for example, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah quipped, “If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” Qaradawi’s refusal to participate in an interfaith discussion in an Arab country if Jews were present is yet one more exhibit of the core problem in the region: Islamist intolerance and not only the silence of the United States in confronting it, but the willingness of U.S. diplomats to look away in order to avoid creating an obstacle to a dialogue which—despite their wildest ambitions—will never bear fruit.

It will take a generation or more to have any impact, but until the United States puts educational reform and combating religious incitement front and center of its policy in the region, any other diplomacy is just wasted effort and ineffective against a growing tidal wave of intolerance and hate.

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Morsi’s Egypt and the Lessons of History

As the Cold War began taking shape early in the Truman administration, famed containment advisor George Kennan argued for a middle way between the strident anti-Communism forming on the right and the strategy of appeasement advocated for by the American left. Kennan believed power and psychology, not ideology, were what motivated Soviet behavior, and this required patience from the U.S. “Since world hegemony was impossible in Kennan’s interpretation of history, so, too, was Communist hegemony after World War II,” explains Elizabeth Edwards Spalding.

Kennan had made two very significant mistakes here–mistakes that proved less costly thanks to Harry Truman’s better judgment. First, as we now know, ideology indeed played a major role in Stalin’s policymaking decisions. Second, and more seriously from a policy standpoint, allowing Communism to expand until it reached its own limits and discredited itself would have meant consigning millions of people worldwide to suffer under the experiment. We didn’t have to test Stalinism further to know whether it had to be opposed.

Although there are obviously major differences between the centralized Communist movement radiating out from an empire that covered one-sixth of the world’s land mass and today’s rising tide of Islamism, there are still relevant lessons in Kennan’s mistakes. Western leaders shouldn’t fool themselves about the political ideology of Islamism, and they shouldn’t preach patience to those living under tyranny. And the case of Egypt would be a good place to start learning and applying those lessons.

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As the Cold War began taking shape early in the Truman administration, famed containment advisor George Kennan argued for a middle way between the strident anti-Communism forming on the right and the strategy of appeasement advocated for by the American left. Kennan believed power and psychology, not ideology, were what motivated Soviet behavior, and this required patience from the U.S. “Since world hegemony was impossible in Kennan’s interpretation of history, so, too, was Communist hegemony after World War II,” explains Elizabeth Edwards Spalding.

Kennan had made two very significant mistakes here–mistakes that proved less costly thanks to Harry Truman’s better judgment. First, as we now know, ideology indeed played a major role in Stalin’s policymaking decisions. Second, and more seriously from a policy standpoint, allowing Communism to expand until it reached its own limits and discredited itself would have meant consigning millions of people worldwide to suffer under the experiment. We didn’t have to test Stalinism further to know whether it had to be opposed.

Although there are obviously major differences between the centralized Communist movement radiating out from an empire that covered one-sixth of the world’s land mass and today’s rising tide of Islamism, there are still relevant lessons in Kennan’s mistakes. Western leaders shouldn’t fool themselves about the political ideology of Islamism, and they shouldn’t preach patience to those living under tyranny. And the case of Egypt would be a good place to start learning and applying those lessons.

There have been calls from both right and left to simply let tyrannical Islamist governments fail on their own, and thus naturally ebb away from the scene. The problem with this advice is that, as Iran and Hamas have shown, it’s actually quite difficult for those living under the thumb of Islamist tyranny to get rid of such governments once they have consolidated power whether they successfully govern their country or not. The case of Hamas is instructive since they are an offshoot of the same movement that now governs their Egyptian neighbors, and not only did Hamas end elections in Gaza after taking power but their strength has also been at the root of Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to hold elections in the West Bank. Tyranny can be contagious, even after its harmfulness is exposed.

We certainly have limited influence on such events, but there’s no reason not to use what influence we have here, especially with regard to foreign aid. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, already clear about his anti-Semitism and consolidation of power, is now jailing his critics. That’s why, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Thomas Carothers and Nathan Brown write today in the Washington Post, the U.S. policy of “respecting” Egypt’s new Islamist rulers has outlived any justification. It’s also, they note acidly, not actually respectful of Islamists:

Putting this message into practice will require much sharper, clearer public responses by the White House and State Department to violations of basic democratic and rule-of-law norms. It will mean an end to justifying the Brotherhood’s negative political steps. And the United States should indicate that the possibility of new aid is not isolated from domestic Egyptian political realities.

This tougher line should not be coupled with an embrace of the opposition. U.S. policy should be based on firm support of core democratic principles, not on playing favorites.

Recalibrating the current policy line will require careful nuance. It has to be clear that the United States is not turning against the Brotherhood but is siding more decisively with democracy. The Obama administration must also make it well known to all that it adamantly opposes any military intervention in Egypt’s politics. The United States is understandably sensitive about being accused of an anti-Islamist stance in an Arab world roiling with Islamist activism. Yet showing that Washington is serious about democratic standards with new Islamist actors in power is ultimately a greater sign of respect for them than excusing their shortcomings and lowering our expectations.

This is an argument that has been made repeatedly in the context of the left’s refusal to hold Palestinians accountable for building state institutions and renouncing terrorism, and it applies here as well. Treating the Abbas or Morsi governments as if they are incapable of upholding basic moral standards is supremely condescending, what is often referred to as the soft bigotry of low expectations.  

And even tacit approval of such behavior won’t exist in a vacuum. It will signal to aspiring dictators–whether Islamist or not–that it doesn’t matter how they seize power or wield it once in office. If the American government is too consumed by a fear of insulting the oppressors to stick up for the oppressed, the world will get more of both.

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“Explanations” of Islamic Jew-Hatred Reveal Media’s Own Prejudices

The Islamic world’s rampant Jew-hatred, as I noted last week, is often simply ignored by the journalists and academics who should be bringing it to public attention. But no less troubling is the fact that on the rare occasions when they do report it, they frequently try to explain it away. These “explanations” offer little insight into the actual sources of Muslim Jew-hatred. But they offer a very disturbing insight into opinion leaders’ motives in concealing this hatred.

A good example is an article published by the New York Times in January that described two cases in which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi made virulently anti-Semitic remarks. In one, he said Egyptians should “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred” for Jews and Zionists; in another, he described Zionists as “these bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.”

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The Islamic world’s rampant Jew-hatred, as I noted last week, is often simply ignored by the journalists and academics who should be bringing it to public attention. But no less troubling is the fact that on the rare occasions when they do report it, they frequently try to explain it away. These “explanations” offer little insight into the actual sources of Muslim Jew-hatred. But they offer a very disturbing insight into opinion leaders’ motives in concealing this hatred.

A good example is an article published by the New York Times in January that described two cases in which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi made virulently anti-Semitic remarks. In one, he said Egyptians should “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred” for Jews and Zionists; in another, he described Zionists as “these bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.”

Both of these statements, wrote reporter David Kirkpatrick, “date back to 2010, when anti-Israeli sentiment was running high after a three-week conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza the previous year.”

The obvious implication for readers who don’t have the dates of every Mideast war at their fingertips is that the conflict probably took place in late 2009, while Morsi’s comments were made in early 2010; hence these were anguished outbursts made in the first raw throes of grief–a time when nobody should be judged too harshly for violent language. Kirkpatrick even strengthened that impression by erroneously dating both speeches to “early 2010,” when in fact, as a subsequent correction noted, one was made in September of that year.

But even without this error, the implication is ridiculous, because the aforementioned conflict ended in January 2009–which Kirkpatrick, as the Times’s Cairo bureau chief, should certainly have known. In other words, these speeches were made at least a full year after the war ended, and in one case, almost two years later. Thus, far from reflecting the first raw throes of grief, they were the deliberate product of more than a year’s reflection. As such, either they genuinely represented the deepest beliefs of the man who is now Egypt’s president, or they were cynically calculated to appeal to Morsi’s audience–an equally disturbing possibility.

Far more disturbing than what this says about Egyptian prejudices, however, is what it says about those of Kirkpatrick and his editors at the Times–because neither he nor they evidently saw any problem in “explaining” Morsi’s vile anti-Semitism on the grounds that he was still overset by grief (“anti-Israel sentiment was running high”) over a war that ended more than a year earlier. In short, like too many other journalists, Kirkpatrick and his editors are convinced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of all evil in the Middle East, and push that theory on their readers.

Unfortunately, this theory isn’t supported by the facts: As one Egyptian cleric helpfully explained, Jews “aren’t our enemies because they occupy Palestine; they would be our enemies even if they had not occupied anything.” And if readers were made aware of the true extent of Islamic Jew-hatred, they might well figure that out for themselves.

One can’t help suspecting that this is precisely why many journalists prefer to let this hatred go unreported: Facts that don’t fit their pet theory of Israel’s guilt are better left unmentioned.

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Ignoring Jew-Hatred in the Islamic World

Western opinion leaders too often ignore the Islamic world’s rampant Jew-hatred, argues a new book reviewed recently in The Jerusalem Report. It’s unfortunate that Tibor Krausz’s review is behind a paywall, since it’s a must-read for anyone who doesn’t plan to read the full book: In example after chilling example, it demonstrates the depth and extent of this Jew-hatred, while also showing that it has nothing to do with Israel’s “occupation of Palestine.” In a televised sermon in 2009, for instance, Egyptian cleric Muhammad Hussein Ya’qub said, “If the Jews left Palestine to us, would we start loving them? Of course not … The Jews are infidels not because I say so but because Allah does… They aren’t our enemies because they occupy Palestine; they would be our enemies even if they had not occupied anything.”

But what moved Neil Kressel, a professor of psychology at William Patterson University, to write The Sons of Pigs and Apes wasn’t merely the existence of this hatred; rather, Krausz noted, it was his dismay over “what he sees as a blind spot — ‘a conspiracy of silence’ — among Western academics, policymakers and journalists about the extent of Muslim anti-Semitism.” Policymakers may not actually belong in this list; I suspect many are genuinely ignorant about this hatred. But if they are, it’s because of this “conspiracy of silence”: The journalists and academics whose job it is to inform them consistently fail to do so.

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Western opinion leaders too often ignore the Islamic world’s rampant Jew-hatred, argues a new book reviewed recently in The Jerusalem Report. It’s unfortunate that Tibor Krausz’s review is behind a paywall, since it’s a must-read for anyone who doesn’t plan to read the full book: In example after chilling example, it demonstrates the depth and extent of this Jew-hatred, while also showing that it has nothing to do with Israel’s “occupation of Palestine.” In a televised sermon in 2009, for instance, Egyptian cleric Muhammad Hussein Ya’qub said, “If the Jews left Palestine to us, would we start loving them? Of course not … The Jews are infidels not because I say so but because Allah does… They aren’t our enemies because they occupy Palestine; they would be our enemies even if they had not occupied anything.”

But what moved Neil Kressel, a professor of psychology at William Patterson University, to write The Sons of Pigs and Apes wasn’t merely the existence of this hatred; rather, Krausz noted, it was his dismay over “what he sees as a blind spot — ‘a conspiracy of silence’ — among Western academics, policymakers and journalists about the extent of Muslim anti-Semitism.” Policymakers may not actually belong in this list; I suspect many are genuinely ignorant about this hatred. But if they are, it’s because of this “conspiracy of silence”: The journalists and academics whose job it is to inform them consistently fail to do so.

A salient example occurred in January, when MEMRI released a video of a 2010 television interview given by Mohamed Morsi, today the president of Egypt. In it, Morsi referred to “Zionists” (a term, as the continuation of the interview made clear, that he considers interchangeable with “Jews”) as “descendants of apes and pigs.” This bombshell was ignored by the mainstream media until one courageous Forbes journalist launched a crusade: He contacted numerous leading news outlets to ask why they didn’t consider it newsworthy that a recipient of billions in American aid was spouting anti-Semitic incitement, then published a story documenting their nonresponse. Only then did the New York Times finally run the story, after which other major media outlets followed suit (the Times claimed its story had nothing to do with Richard Behar’s crusade; I confess to skepticism).

But even once the story ran, it left readers ignorant of the scope of the problem. Granted, they now knew that one individual had made anti-Semitic slurs, but every country has such individuals. What they didn’t know is that Morsi is the Egyptian norm rather than the exception. They didn’t know, for instance, that just days after this story broke, a senior Morsi aide called the Holocaust a “myth” that America “invented” to justify World War II, and claimed the six million Jews Hitler slaughtered really just moved to the U.S. Or that two months earlier, the head of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, Mohammed Badie, called for jihad against Israel, after having previously called Israel’s creation “the worst catastrophe ever to befall the peoples of the world.” Or about Ya’qub’s televised sermon. And so on.

Nor did they know that such incitement is routine throughout the Islamic world, even in “moderate” U.S. allies like Turkey or Jordan.

For people to know, it would have to be reported on a regular basis. But it isn’t. So policymakers remain blithely ignorant of a defining fact of Middle Eastern life. And then we wonder why they so often get the Middle East wrong.

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Keep U.S.-Egypt Joint Exercises on Ice

I was surprised to hear recently from deploying U.S. troops that among their deployment plans was participation in Bright Star, the once-annual U.S.-Egypt military exercise delayed as a result of the political turmoil that led to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. In February, CENTCOM commander General James Mattis and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson met to discuss the resumption of Bright Star with Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s appointee.

In recent weeks, Sisi has apparently been turning a blind eye as the Muslim Brotherhood sends its own as cadets into Egypt’s military academy in an effort to change the army’s character. The army has also proven itself ineffective as Islamists target Christians in what might best be described as pogroms.

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I was surprised to hear recently from deploying U.S. troops that among their deployment plans was participation in Bright Star, the once-annual U.S.-Egypt military exercise delayed as a result of the political turmoil that led to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. In February, CENTCOM commander General James Mattis and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson met to discuss the resumption of Bright Star with Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s appointee.

In recent weeks, Sisi has apparently been turning a blind eye as the Muslim Brotherhood sends its own as cadets into Egypt’s military academy in an effort to change the army’s character. The army has also proven itself ineffective as Islamists target Christians in what might best be described as pogroms.

Ties between military officers can be incredibly important, especially when it comes to de-escalating crises. During the 1999 Kargil Crisis—which for a short time appeared could spark a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan—it was the personal ties between American and Pakistani officers more than formal diplomacy that helped calm the situation.

Still, prominent exercises as Bright Star often imply a greater partnership than Egypt deserves. As Egypt’s military changes, it increasingly poses a threat to its neighbors and its own people. Bilateral military ties might continue with occasional meetings, but it is both too early and unwise for Egypt to host Bright Star. Let us hope Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel might spend the money the Pentagon now plans to expend on Egypt instead on the upkeep and training of U.S. forces and equipment.

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Time for a Thoughtful Egypt Policy

The latest news from Egypt is literally beyond satire: Bassem Youssef, often described as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart,” is being prosecuted on charges of insulting President Mohamed Morsi and Islam in general.

As Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, one of the smartest Egypt analysts around, notes, this is of a piece with Morsi’s general crackdown on opposition and attempts to give the Muslim Brotherhood control of all aspects of Egyptian society: “According to the Egypt-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, four times as many lawsuits for ‘insulting the president’ were filed during Morsi’s first 100 days in office than during Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year reign.”

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The latest news from Egypt is literally beyond satire: Bassem Youssef, often described as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart,” is being prosecuted on charges of insulting President Mohamed Morsi and Islam in general.

As Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, one of the smartest Egypt analysts around, notes, this is of a piece with Morsi’s general crackdown on opposition and attempts to give the Muslim Brotherhood control of all aspects of Egyptian society: “According to the Egypt-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, four times as many lawsuits for ‘insulting the president’ were filed during Morsi’s first 100 days in office than during Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year reign.”

The question is what the U.S. should do about this worrisome power grab. Exhorting Morsi to respect freedom of speech is a no-brainer—but what should we do if, like Mubarak before him, he ignores our exhortations? The U.S. has considerable leverage because of all the aid we provide to Egypt and because Egypt needs our support for a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF that it needs to keep its economy functioning. It is easy enough to threaten Morsi with an aid cutoff but harder to follow through because of the disastrous consequences that are likely for Egyptian society.

As the New York Times notes, Egypt is already facing a foreign-reserve crisis. As its hard currency holdings diminish (falling over the past two years from $36 billion to $13 billion) and as its own currency loses value, social instability increases: “A fuel shortage has helped send food prices soaring. Electricity is blacking out even before the summer. And gas-line gunfights have killed at least five people and wounded dozens over the past two weeks.” Do we dare risk exacerbating this crisis by punishing Morsi for his transgressions against liberal principles?

 That is not an easy question to answer because it is hard to predict the consequences of an economic collapse in Egypt—it could discredit Morsi and lead to the rise of a more moderate government or, more likely, it could provide an opening for Salafists even more radical than Morsi to come to the fore. Even if we cut only military, not economic, assistance, the results could backfire by weakening the military, which remains the only institution powerful enough to resist a complete Muslim Brotherhood takeover. 

None of this is to argue that we shouldn’t use our financial leverage—only to wonder what would happen if Morsi calls our bluff.

At the very least we should be working behind the scenes on other policies designed to provide support to more liberal and secular groups that want to resist a Brotherhood crackdown but lack the resources to do so.

What we cannot afford is to remain aloof—as President Obama by temperament and policy prefers to do. The battle going on for the future of the most populous Arab state will have long-term ramifications for the entire region—and for vital American interests. Given the stakes involved we don’t have the option of voting “present” as Obama had a penchant for doing while an Illinois state senator, but figuring out the right policy mix remains devilishly difficult.

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Obama Subsidizes Egyptian War on Women

The contradictions at the heart of the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East are approaching the level of parody. For the past four years under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we were constantly told that protecting the rights of women was an integral element in U.S. foreign policy. That was laudable, yet the same State Department that touted its feminist bona fides to the press was also the champion of engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt. While the administration has dug in its heels on their policy of continuing to shower Mohamed Morsi’s regime with U.S. taxpayer dollars, there doesn’t seem to be any more pushback against Egypt’s policy toward women than its attempts to crush political opponents or its anti-Semitism.

An article in today’s New York Times that discusses the Brotherhood’s policies toward women illustrates the raging hypocrisy of the American stand on Egypt. There was never much doubt about the misogyny that is at the heart of the Islamist group’s worldview, but by issuing a public critique of a proposed United Nations declaration opposing violence against women, they have elevated the topic to one of international significance. The regime’s stance on women is scaring Egyptian moderates and liberals who are rapidly losing any hope that the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s government would usher in an era of democratic reform. But the specter of the most populous Arab state’s government moving slowly but surely toward an Iran-style theocracy is an ominous development for the rest of the region. Indeed, this makes it clear that what President Obama is doing in Egypt is nothing less than a U.S.-subsidized war on women.

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The contradictions at the heart of the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East are approaching the level of parody. For the past four years under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we were constantly told that protecting the rights of women was an integral element in U.S. foreign policy. That was laudable, yet the same State Department that touted its feminist bona fides to the press was also the champion of engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt. While the administration has dug in its heels on their policy of continuing to shower Mohamed Morsi’s regime with U.S. taxpayer dollars, there doesn’t seem to be any more pushback against Egypt’s policy toward women than its attempts to crush political opponents or its anti-Semitism.

An article in today’s New York Times that discusses the Brotherhood’s policies toward women illustrates the raging hypocrisy of the American stand on Egypt. There was never much doubt about the misogyny that is at the heart of the Islamist group’s worldview, but by issuing a public critique of a proposed United Nations declaration opposing violence against women, they have elevated the topic to one of international significance. The regime’s stance on women is scaring Egyptian moderates and liberals who are rapidly losing any hope that the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s government would usher in an era of democratic reform. But the specter of the most populous Arab state’s government moving slowly but surely toward an Iran-style theocracy is an ominous development for the rest of the region. Indeed, this makes it clear that what President Obama is doing in Egypt is nothing less than a U.S.-subsidized war on women.

As the Times details, Morsi’s governing party has several bones to pick with what might otherwise be considered an anodyne resolution condemning violence against women.

According to the Brotherhood, men should not be liable to being charged with the rape of their waves or be subjected to harsh punishment if they were called to account. They also say that women should not have equal rights of inheritance or be allowed to work, travel or use contraception without their husband’s permission.

Given that the group believes women are generally at fault when they are beaten by their husbands, this is hardly a surprise.

Morsi’s official spokesperson, who is still trying to convince the Western press that the Brotherhood is a moderate organization that has no intention of subjecting the entire nation to Islamist interpretations of religious law, tried to distance the Egyptian leader from his party’s declaration. But Egyptians understand which way the wind is blowing.

That the Brotherhood would issues such a salvo against women’s rights right at the time when the regime is encountering increased resistance to its rule and with new parliamentary elections in doubt is telling. Rather than moderate their stands, they are doubling down on their effort to use their newly acquired power not just to dominate every branch of the government but to transform society in their own image.

Part of the Brotherhood’s confidence stems from their belief that there is virtually nothing they can do that would prompt President Obama to cut off the more than $2 billion in U.S. aid that the country continues to receive. The administration has bought into the idea that, as Vice President Biden claimed last week in his speech to the AIPAC conference, there is no alternative to engagement with Morsi and his crowd. But what non-Islamist Egyptians are discovering is that bolstering the regime with the hundreds of millions more in U.S. funds, such as the big check Secretary of State John Kerry brought to Cairo earlier this month, is only worsening the situation.

Unlike the Obama re-election campaign theme, the Brotherhood’s war on women is not a partisan farce aimed at demonizing opponents but a genuine wave of repression that will set back human rights in that country. That the same administration that was re-elected in part because of its pro-women policies and which trumpeted its concerns for women’s rights abroad is subsidizing a regime that oppresses women in this fashion is more than merely hypocritical. It is an indictment of a president and a State Department that have lost their moral compass.

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What’s Wrong with the US Embassy in Egypt?

After Samuel Tadros blew the whistle on First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s plans to honor a vicious anti-Semite, Hitler-quoting, 9/11 celebrating, anti-American conspiracy theorist, the State Department backtracked and deferred the award, blaming the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for the poor vetting. Lee Smith has a useful summary of that issue, here. He writes:

It is unfair that the American embassy in Cairo is taking most of the blame for the [Samira] Ibrahim affair. Yes, they should’ve done a better job of vetting her before sending her name on to Washington. To get a read on Ibrahim’s political positions, all embassy staff had to do was check with some of Egypt’s genuine liberal activists, like those who since the story broke have criticized her vicious opinions, or like Samuel Tadros, or Mina Rezkalla and Amr Bargisi, or anyone from the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth. But that hardly excuses management at Foggy Bottom, who should have smelled something fishy at the outset…

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After Samuel Tadros blew the whistle on First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s plans to honor a vicious anti-Semite, Hitler-quoting, 9/11 celebrating, anti-American conspiracy theorist, the State Department backtracked and deferred the award, blaming the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for the poor vetting. Lee Smith has a useful summary of that issue, here. He writes:

It is unfair that the American embassy in Cairo is taking most of the blame for the [Samira] Ibrahim affair. Yes, they should’ve done a better job of vetting her before sending her name on to Washington. To get a read on Ibrahim’s political positions, all embassy staff had to do was check with some of Egypt’s genuine liberal activists, like those who since the story broke have criticized her vicious opinions, or like Samuel Tadros, or Mina Rezkalla and Amr Bargisi, or anyone from the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth. But that hardly excuses management at Foggy Bottom, who should have smelled something fishy at the outset…

That is certainly right, but it only scratches the surface. Something is very rotten at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo which was, until the 2003 Iraq War, the largest U.S. embassy in the world. “Samiragate” is the rule rather than the exception. Remember, after an Egyptian-American posted on YoutTube the trailer for an amateurish film mocking the Prophet Muhammad, the embassy overruled the State Department and tweeted apologies to the militants attacking the embassy. Public affairs officer Larry Schwartz became the fall guy for that episode, but he merely reflected the culture the embassy cultivated.

Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, is a career foreign service officer who has led the embassy since 2010. She has set the tone for the embassy’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood. Explaining why Mohamed Morsi deserved American F-16 fighters, despite an increasing disdain for the rule of law and revelations about his hateful incitement, Patterson declared Morsi deserved the weaponry so Egypt can “continue to serve as a force for peace, security, and leadership as the Middle East proceeds with its challenging yet essential journey toward democracy.”

Here’s the kicker: Guess who seems to be a finalist under Secretary of State John Kerry for a promotion to become assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs? That’s right, Anne Patterson. If Samiragate was truly the result of incompetence, then Patterson could use her new position to bring that quality to the broader Middle East. Conversely, if it really was illustrative of the cultural and political bubble that Patterson imbued or let develop in her staff, then get ready for several more years of self-inflicted wounds.

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PA: If We Won’t Talk with Israel, Nobody Else Should, Either

You couldn’t make this up: The Palestinian Authority is furious that Israel and Hamas are reportedly holding indirect talks in Cairo to firm up their cease-fire, because “only the PLO was authorized to conduct such negotiations in its capacity as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.’” Never mind that the PLO, aka the PA (both are headed by the same man, Mahmoud Abbas, and dominated by the same party, Fatah) has refused to hold talks with Israel for four years now; if Hamas had to wait for the PLO to discuss its pressing concerns with Israel, it might still be waiting when the Messiah comes. In the PA’s world, ordinary Palestinians’ real problems–of which residents of Hamas-run Gaza have plenty–always come a distant second to its own prestige. If it doesn’t feel like talking with Israel, then Gazans should just wait patiently until it does.

But this story also highlights just how irrelevant the PA’s refusal to talk with Israel is making it. Hamas would prefer going through Egypt rather than the PA for many reasons, but one is the simple fact that Egypt can deliver the goods. Egyptian officials are still willing to talk with Israel; that’s how they brokered the Israel-Hamas cease-fire in November, and why they can mediate between the parties now. In contrast, Abbas can’t.

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You couldn’t make this up: The Palestinian Authority is furious that Israel and Hamas are reportedly holding indirect talks in Cairo to firm up their cease-fire, because “only the PLO was authorized to conduct such negotiations in its capacity as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.’” Never mind that the PLO, aka the PA (both are headed by the same man, Mahmoud Abbas, and dominated by the same party, Fatah) has refused to hold talks with Israel for four years now; if Hamas had to wait for the PLO to discuss its pressing concerns with Israel, it might still be waiting when the Messiah comes. In the PA’s world, ordinary Palestinians’ real problems–of which residents of Hamas-run Gaza have plenty–always come a distant second to its own prestige. If it doesn’t feel like talking with Israel, then Gazans should just wait patiently until it does.

But this story also highlights just how irrelevant the PA’s refusal to talk with Israel is making it. Hamas would prefer going through Egypt rather than the PA for many reasons, but one is the simple fact that Egypt can deliver the goods. Egyptian officials are still willing to talk with Israel; that’s how they brokered the Israel-Hamas cease-fire in November, and why they can mediate between the parties now. In contrast, Abbas can’t.

Once upon a time, he could and did. That’s why, for instance, PA officials are still stationed at the Gaza-Israel border crossings: Unwilling to recognize Israel or talk with it directly, Hamas nevertheless needs to deal with Israel to run those crossings; PA officials were the mutually agreed-upon mediators. But that arrangement was hammered out at a time when the PA was still willing to talk with Israel. Now, it isn’t.

In that sense, there’s even a twisted logic to the PA’s accusation that the “secret talks in Cairo” are why the latest Fatah-Hamas reconciliation effort failed. Clearly, neither side really wants to reconcile; that’s why every such effort has failed for years. But for Hamas, Abbas’s refusal to talk with Israel means the PA can no longer provide the one service Hamas actually needs from it. Meanwhile, Egypt has proven an effective substitute. Thus its incentive to make a deal, never high, has declined even further.

Ironically, Hamas recently taught Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan an identical lesson. When the Hamas-Israel conflict erupted in November, Erdogan lavished rhetorical support on Hamas, but having refused for years to talk with Israel, he was unable to do anything more constructive. It was Egypt that brokered the cease-fire Hamas needed, thereby receiving worldwide kudos for successful diplomacy. Erdogan was reduced to pathetically trying to share the credit by proclaiming that his spy chief, too, met an Israeli official in Cairo during the cease-fire talks–an effort that convinced nobody (except, perhaps, his hardcore supporters in Turkey).

So far, neither Erdogan nor Abbas has been willing to climb down from his tree. But Erdogan can afford it: As the leader of a Middle Eastern powerhouse and one of President Barack Obama’s closest confidants, he has other venues in which to prove his relevance. Abbas, the leader of a perpetually bankrupt entity whose conflict with Israel is the world’s sole reason for being interested in him, may discover that he doesn’t have the same luxury.

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Little Princes Survive the Arab Spring

The so-called Arab Spring began more than two years ago when a Tunisian fruit vendor, upset by the Tunisian regime’s corruption and lack of accountability, set himself on fire. It soon became apparent that nearly every Arab country was a tinderbox, smoldering under dictatorship and popular discord.

A chief symbol of regional corruption was the leader’s son. Hosni Mubarak had his son Gamal, a bag man for the regime and for Mubarak’s personal fortune. Muammar Qaddafi had Saif, who traveled across Europe and the halls of Congress, charming almost every diplomat or congressman he met, and signing billions of dollars of deals along the way. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, penned a Foreign Policy piece about how the sons of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have transformed their connections into fortunes.

Throughout much of the rest of the Middle East—Kurd, Persian, and Turkish—the pattern is the same: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had Qubad Talabani; Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani had his son Masrour Barzani; and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has Ahmad Maliki. Indeed, across the Iraqi and Kurdish political spectrum, there are few politicians who do not transform their sons into business agents or recipients of nepotistic largesse.

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The so-called Arab Spring began more than two years ago when a Tunisian fruit vendor, upset by the Tunisian regime’s corruption and lack of accountability, set himself on fire. It soon became apparent that nearly every Arab country was a tinderbox, smoldering under dictatorship and popular discord.

A chief symbol of regional corruption was the leader’s son. Hosni Mubarak had his son Gamal, a bag man for the regime and for Mubarak’s personal fortune. Muammar Qaddafi had Saif, who traveled across Europe and the halls of Congress, charming almost every diplomat or congressman he met, and signing billions of dollars of deals along the way. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, penned a Foreign Policy piece about how the sons of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have transformed their connections into fortunes.

Throughout much of the rest of the Middle East—Kurd, Persian, and Turkish—the pattern is the same: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had Qubad Talabani; Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani had his son Masrour Barzani; and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has Ahmad Maliki. Indeed, across the Iraqi and Kurdish political spectrum, there are few politicians who do not transform their sons into business agents or recipients of nepotistic largesse.

In Iran, they even have a nickname for such children: Popularly, they are referred to as Aghazadeh-ha, the sons of the nobles, a term which refers to the ability of men like Mehdi Rafsanjani or his brother Yasser to make tens of millions of dollars off the political connections of their father, former president Al Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

And the leadership of Turkey, which is far more Middle Eastern today than European, indulges in the same pattern. Behind closed doors, be it in Ankara, Moscow, Riyadh, or Washington, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not shy about telling foreign leaders or prominent businessmen that if they want pipelines or other deals to proceed, they should contract Çalik Holdings in which his son-in-law Berat Albayrak is chief executive.

[Çalik Energy, a subsidiary of Çalik Holdings, was a donor to the Atlantic Council, according to a disclosure which Atlantic Council chairman Fred Kempe made to the Wall Street Journal regarding questions surrounding former senator Chuck Hagel’s chairmanship; he might have simply said Erdoğan donated, because the laundering of cash through Çalik is standard operating procedure for the Turkish strongman].

Alas, the Arab Spring may have swept away one generation of dictators but it did not do away with the “Little Prince” phenomenon. David Schenker, perhaps Washington’s most consistently correct Arab affairs analyst, notes the pattern has now re-emerged in Cairo. According to the Associated Press:

Egypt’s aviation minister says the hiring of President Mohammed Morsi’s son to a highly-paid government job was justified, dismissing accusations of nepotism… Omar, one of the president’s five children and a recent university graduate, got the internally-advertised job in a department that usually hires with a starting monthly salary of $5,000. Such a figure is unheard of for new graduates in Egypt, where the starting salary for a government job can be as low as $75.

Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood is just as corrupt as the regime it replaced, if not more so.

It is a shame that the sons (or son-in-law, in the case of Turkey) of Middle Eastern leaders diminish themselves by seeking easy cash rather than to excel in their own fields. What a powerful symbol it might make if the son of a leader sought to excel as a doctor, engineer, or teacher. Cynics may say it’s understandable, and both realists and pessimists might point out that this is simply local culture. Regardless, perhaps there is no better metric of the seriousness of reform for diplomats to point to than the behavior of leaders’ children.

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Why Is Obama Clinging to the Brotherhood?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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