We won’t know the outcome of the referendum on Egypt’s proposed new constitution that will strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on power until after next weekend’s second round of voting. But those betting on the Brotherhood not ensuring that there will be a majority for its confirmation or accepting a negative vote if one is allowed haven’t been paying much attention to the way the group operates or thinks. In the less than two years since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood has moved to seize total power, the latest move coming when President Mohamed Morsi effectively assumed powers comparable to those held by the now imprisoned dictator. Though there has been a courageous effort by the judiciary as well as groups of citizens to stop the Brotherhood, the Islamists have combined ruthless suppression of dissent—including killings of demonstrators that ought in principle to render Morsi vulnerable to the same charges that he is pressing against Mubarak—with a clever mobilization of party cadres to keep their opponents off balance and on the defensive.
This rapid and efficient consolidation of Islamist hegemony in Cairo took a lot of observers by surprise. Many of us had some hope that the Arab Spring would bring democracy to an Arab world where it is largely unknown. But by now only those unwilling to face reality are still pretending the Brotherhood are just a bunch of Muslim democrats. Not surprisingly, Tom Friedman, the New York Times op-ed page’s resident Middle East expert, is among that group. In a column that is obtuse even by his standards, Friedman speculates that it is just as likely that Egypt will wind up a functioning multi-ethnic democracy like India as a dysfunctional Islamic state like Pakistan. It says a lot about the Times these days that such a foolish and ignorant column is what passes for foreign policy expertise at the paper. But the real problem here is not just one more dumb Times column but the fact that Friedman’s rosy view of the Brotherhood’s democratic potential dovetails with the Obama administration’s ill conceived embrace of the Morsi government.