Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egyptian military

The Brotherhood Waves the White Flag

A few weeks ago I wrote about the capture of a Muslim Brotherhood leader by Egypt’s military government and observed that the bloodbath and popular revolution that many observers expected after last summer’s coup hadn’t materialized. Today comes news that seems to make plain what was just an informed guess in October: the Brotherhood knows it is beaten. As Haaretz reports,

A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition of organizations in Egypt announced Saturday that it wants to engage in dialogue with the interim government in order to put an end to the current political impasse.

The call by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy is the first formal proposition by Morsi supporters, who have organized near-daily protests demanding his return to office since he was removed in a popularly supported military coup on July 3. It also marks the first time the group has not demanded Morsi’s return to power.

In other words, the organization is conceding that ousted Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi is never going to be president of Egypt again and that if they want any say in their country’s future it will have to be on the military’s terms. This is big news for Egyptians, since it signals that a repeat of Algeria’s decade-long bloody civil war after that country’s army ousted an Islamist government is now off the table. This puts to rest the argument often heard in this country calling for a stern U.S. response to the coup since it was thought in some quarters to not only a guarantee a long terrorist war but suppression of a legitimate point of view that could count on the support of a critical mass of Egyptians. But if the Brotherhood is waving the white flag and appealing for the tolerance of the government, if not peace with it, it is as strong an indication as we are likely to get that the group knows it’s licked.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the capture of a Muslim Brotherhood leader by Egypt’s military government and observed that the bloodbath and popular revolution that many observers expected after last summer’s coup hadn’t materialized. Today comes news that seems to make plain what was just an informed guess in October: the Brotherhood knows it is beaten. As Haaretz reports,

A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition of organizations in Egypt announced Saturday that it wants to engage in dialogue with the interim government in order to put an end to the current political impasse.

The call by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy is the first formal proposition by Morsi supporters, who have organized near-daily protests demanding his return to office since he was removed in a popularly supported military coup on July 3. It also marks the first time the group has not demanded Morsi’s return to power.

In other words, the organization is conceding that ousted Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi is never going to be president of Egypt again and that if they want any say in their country’s future it will have to be on the military’s terms. This is big news for Egyptians, since it signals that a repeat of Algeria’s decade-long bloody civil war after that country’s army ousted an Islamist government is now off the table. This puts to rest the argument often heard in this country calling for a stern U.S. response to the coup since it was thought in some quarters to not only a guarantee a long terrorist war but suppression of a legitimate point of view that could count on the support of a critical mass of Egyptians. But if the Brotherhood is waving the white flag and appealing for the tolerance of the government, if not peace with it, it is as strong an indication as we are likely to get that the group knows it’s licked.

Let’s specify that the process by which the army has repressed the Brotherhood was based on repression, not debate. The military has killed Brotherhood protesters and done everything possible to hinder their ability to organize opposition to their rule. But their victory was made possible by something that many critics of the coup did not understand or sought to deny: the toppling of Morsi’s government was as much an expression of the will of the Egyptian people as the movement that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

Tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets of Egyptian cities in the last days of the Morsi government calling for it to cease its drive for total power and to allow the people a vote on whether it should hold onto power. But if the military had not stepped in, there is little doubt that Morsi not only would have stayed in office but that he would have continued his efforts to ensure that he could never be defeated by fair means or foul. Though it had been able to call on the support of many Egyptians in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster and won an election, the year of Brotherhood rule that followed convinced many of those who voted for them they had made a mistake. Though some Western journalists were fooled into thinking the Brotherhood had no intentions of transforming the country into an Islamist state, the Egyptian people were not fooled.

That is why when some Brotherhood leaders vowed vengeance after the coup and sought to create an uprising, few supported such a move. The Islamists were not only intimidated by the military’s show of force; they were rejected by the people among whom they had thought to hide in plain sight, as is the case with successful guerrilla wars. Egyptians understood, even if many Americans did not, that democracy was not an option and that if they had to choose between the military and the Brotherhood, there was no doubt which was the more preferable option.

It is in this context that the Obama administration’s aid cutoffs to Egypt should be viewed. While it is proper for the U.S. to encourage a turn to democracy in Egypt, it must be on terms that will make it impossible for a totalitarian movement like the Brotherhood to win back power.

The Obama administration has foolishly downgraded ties with Egypt and even acted as if it wished for a return of the Morsi government that it had for a time embraced. This shortsighted policy has left an opening for Russia to seek to revive an alliance with Egypt that was ended by Anwar Sadat. But the moral of this story remains clear: while some in the West seemed to accept the Brotherhood’s claim that Islamism was the wave of the future in the Middle East and that they could not be defeated, the military and people of Egypt have proved the contrary to be true. Islamists can be beaten. That’s something the U.S. should be celebrating, not condemning.

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Is Obama Losing Egypt Again?

Once again the future of Egypt hangs in the balance. The ultimatum delivered yesterday to the Muslim Brotherhood government by the Egyptian military puts President Mohamed Morsi on notice that it will not tolerate repression of the protesters who have turned out in unprecedented numbers this week to demonstrate against the Islamist movement’s push to seize total power. Should Morsi agree to early elections, that might avert a confrontation. But given his determination to press on with his Islamist project and with a massive following of his own that could be unleashed on the streets, it’s not clear whether the president will try to call the army’s bluff or back down. No foreign power, even one with the leverage that the billions in annual aid to Egypt gives the United States, can solely determine the outcome of this standoff. But anything President Obama does or says at this crucial moment can have a disproportionate impact on what will happen. Thus, the news that President Obama is trying to play both ends against the middle in Egypt is a discouraging sign that once again the administration doesn’t understand the stakes involved in this struggle and where U.S. interests lie.

As CNN reports, the United States is sending out mixed messages to the competing factions. On the one hand, reportedly the president told Morsi that he should agree to new elections, a sign that finally the administration is stepping away from its embrace of the Brotherhood government. On the other hand, it has apparently also warned the military that the U.S. will not tolerate a move to unseat Morsi or to impose its own “road map” to a new government, as the army has warned it will do should the Egyptian president allow the 48-hour ultimatum to expire without agreeing to respect the demands of the protesters.

While it is clear the U.S. is in a difficult position, Obama’s attempt to thread the needle in Cairo may well wind up leaving America with the worst of both worlds. As it did in 2011 when its equivocal response to the Arab Spring protests helped dump Mubarak while at the same time alienating the Egyptian people, the administration has not made clear its priorities. After a year in which the actions of both Washington and Ambassador Anne Patterson have left the impression that President Obama is firmly committed to supporting Morsi, the threat of an aid cutoff if the military acts to curb the Brotherhood may have far more resonance that its sotto voce whispers about new elections. The result is that by refusing to fully support the military’s efforts to prevent Morsi from consolidating power, the United States may be missing another opportunity to prevent Egypt from slipping irrevocably into Islamist tyranny.

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Once again the future of Egypt hangs in the balance. The ultimatum delivered yesterday to the Muslim Brotherhood government by the Egyptian military puts President Mohamed Morsi on notice that it will not tolerate repression of the protesters who have turned out in unprecedented numbers this week to demonstrate against the Islamist movement’s push to seize total power. Should Morsi agree to early elections, that might avert a confrontation. But given his determination to press on with his Islamist project and with a massive following of his own that could be unleashed on the streets, it’s not clear whether the president will try to call the army’s bluff or back down. No foreign power, even one with the leverage that the billions in annual aid to Egypt gives the United States, can solely determine the outcome of this standoff. But anything President Obama does or says at this crucial moment can have a disproportionate impact on what will happen. Thus, the news that President Obama is trying to play both ends against the middle in Egypt is a discouraging sign that once again the administration doesn’t understand the stakes involved in this struggle and where U.S. interests lie.

As CNN reports, the United States is sending out mixed messages to the competing factions. On the one hand, reportedly the president told Morsi that he should agree to new elections, a sign that finally the administration is stepping away from its embrace of the Brotherhood government. On the other hand, it has apparently also warned the military that the U.S. will not tolerate a move to unseat Morsi or to impose its own “road map” to a new government, as the army has warned it will do should the Egyptian president allow the 48-hour ultimatum to expire without agreeing to respect the demands of the protesters.

While it is clear the U.S. is in a difficult position, Obama’s attempt to thread the needle in Cairo may well wind up leaving America with the worst of both worlds. As it did in 2011 when its equivocal response to the Arab Spring protests helped dump Mubarak while at the same time alienating the Egyptian people, the administration has not made clear its priorities. After a year in which the actions of both Washington and Ambassador Anne Patterson have left the impression that President Obama is firmly committed to supporting Morsi, the threat of an aid cutoff if the military acts to curb the Brotherhood may have far more resonance that its sotto voce whispers about new elections. The result is that by refusing to fully support the military’s efforts to prevent Morsi from consolidating power, the United States may be missing another opportunity to prevent Egypt from slipping irrevocably into Islamist tyranny.

From the start of the Arab Spring protests, President Obama has sought to portray himself as a supporter of those who wanted to overthrow authoritarian dictatorships in the Muslim world. This is a laudable impulse, but the practical effect of this policy has been to lend the legitimacy of U.S. backing to Islamist movements like the Brotherhood who used their superior organization to win the elections that followed Mubarak’s fall. Elections are important. But when voting takes place in the absence of a consensus in favor of democratic principles, it is often a poor barometer of genuine progress toward freedom. Like the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, the Brotherhood’s triumph at the ballot box wasn’t an indication that Egypt was on its way to democracy. As Morsi has proven over the course of the last year, it was merely a way station toward the Brotherhood’s plans to remake the country in its own image, something that horrified many moderate Muslims as well as secular and Christian Egyptians.

It should also have shocked an Obama administration that used its considerable influence over the Egyptian military to force them to stand aside and let Morsi and the Brotherhood take over the government last year. But now that the people have risen in numbers that dwarf the considerable protests that helped oust Mubarak, it is time for the United States to make it clear that what it wants is an end to the brief and unhappy experiment of Brotherhood rule.

President Obama has shown himself to be reluctant to throw America’s weight around when it comes to defending U.S. interests as opposed to those causes that can be portrayed as a gesture toward universal principles. Thus, he seems averse to anything that can be seen as repressing the will of the Egyptian people. But after a year of the Brotherhood’s efforts to undermine any checks and balances on its power, the demonstrators realize something that perhaps has eluded the president and his inner circle: this is probably Egypt’s last chance to oust Morsi before he completes the process of consolidating his power.

If the U.S. forces the Egyptian military to back down as it did last year, then it is highly unlikely that Morsi and the Brotherhood will ever be successfully challenged. Without the military behind them, the anti-Morsi protests could be repressed. More elections may follow, but if the Brotherhood is allowed to complete its conquest of the bureaucracy, the media and the military, then it is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to unseat them.

Much as he would like to avoid picking sides, the time is fast approaching when Obama must choose between his strange willingness to make common cause with the Brotherhood and its Turkish ally, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the need to help those who wish to prevent Egypt from sinking into an Islamist nightmare. In this case, ambivalence and nuance is not, as the administration seems to think, the same thing as effective strategy or a defense of U.S. interests. As Egypt heads toward the precipice, President Obama must make it clear that America will back those who seek to prevent a Brotherhood dictatorship. If he doesn’t, both history and the Egyptian people may never forgive him.

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