Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egyptian presidential election

Can Obama Resist the Morsi Temptation?

The victory of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi in the Egyptian presidential election has presented the United States with an interesting dilemma. After more than a year of vacillating between support for democratic change in the Arab world and a willingness to leave authoritarians in place, Morsi’s triumph represents what many in the Obama administration may think is a fresh opportunity to have an impact on the changing situation in the Middle East. They need to resist it.

As Jackson Diehl noted in today’s Washington Post, President Obama has much to answer for in the way his waffling between support for democracy and authoritarians contributed to the way the Arab Spring became a disaster for both the peoples of the Middle East and the United States: Though it is not likely that his enormous self-regard will allow him to accept that blame, there’s little doubt that the president wants very much to have an impact on events in Egypt and throughout the region even if he prefers to “lead from behind” in the tricky conflicts within each nation. It should be remembered that in May of 2011 he devoted most of a speech on the Middle East policy to his views on the Arab Spring, though it is best remembered for the closing section in which he ambushed Israel. The Arab world cared little for the president’s ineffectual and ultimately irrelevant views about their future, but what is most worrisome about the current situation is that the president may view Morsi’s election as a second chance to influence events in Egypt.

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The victory of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi in the Egyptian presidential election has presented the United States with an interesting dilemma. After more than a year of vacillating between support for democratic change in the Arab world and a willingness to leave authoritarians in place, Morsi’s triumph represents what many in the Obama administration may think is a fresh opportunity to have an impact on the changing situation in the Middle East. They need to resist it.

As Jackson Diehl noted in today’s Washington Post, President Obama has much to answer for in the way his waffling between support for democracy and authoritarians contributed to the way the Arab Spring became a disaster for both the peoples of the Middle East and the United States: Though it is not likely that his enormous self-regard will allow him to accept that blame, there’s little doubt that the president wants very much to have an impact on events in Egypt and throughout the region even if he prefers to “lead from behind” in the tricky conflicts within each nation. It should be remembered that in May of 2011 he devoted most of a speech on the Middle East policy to his views on the Arab Spring, though it is best remembered for the closing section in which he ambushed Israel. The Arab world cared little for the president’s ineffectual and ultimately irrelevant views about their future, but what is most worrisome about the current situation is that the president may view Morsi’s election as a second chance to influence events in Egypt.

It was perhaps inevitable and perhaps even necessary for the United States to send its official congratulations to Morsi, but what follows now will be crucial to America’s chances of at least not worsening the situation in Egypt. But that is exactly what the president will do if he begins to act as if Morsi and the Brotherhood represent democratic legitimacy while the Egyptian army — their opponents in the struggle for power in Cairo — is a symbol of authoritarianism. Though the United States has good reason to think ill of the army’s strong-arm tactics and ought not to let itself be tainted by openly supporting these holdovers from the Mubarak era, it would be an even bigger mistake to act as if the Brotherhood is synonymous with democracy.

As the Bush administration learned when it attempted to foster Palestinian democracy, elections are meaningless if the only choices are corrupt authoritarians and Islamists. That is just as true today in Egypt when it comes to the military and the Muslim Brotherhood as it was for the Palestinians when their options were Fatah and Hamas. When those opposed to democracy win elections, the result is not democracy.

While the attempt to market the Brotherhood as moderates is meeting with some resistance in the West, it will be just as important for the administration not to get tricked into viewing Morsi as a free agent who can be peeled away from his party, as today’s New York Times dispatch from Cairo hinted. Morsi’s resignation from the group yesterday is meaningless. Any American wooing of this ideologue will only give his party undeserved credibility and make it even harder for either the military or the small groups of genuine Egyptian liberals to resist the Brotherhood’s first attempts to remake the nation in their own image.

The most dangerous aspect of this situation is the way a desire to entice Morsi to play ball with the West will appeal to President Obama’s ego. Obama has repeatedly shown he believes the power of his personality and the historic nature of his presidency can transcend all sorts of differences. That is why he finds Islamists like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan so appealing. He flatters himself that their curious friendship rises above the differences between American democracy and Erdoğan’s ideology.

Obama may believe he can use the $1 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt to romance Morsi into transforming the Brotherhood into a peaceful democratic movement, but this is as much of a delusion as any notion of reforming the army. As badly as the administration has messed up in the Middle East, the Morsi temptation is an opportunity for the president to make things a lot worse. Let’s hope his re-election campaign will act as deterrent to any new overtures to the Brotherhood.

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U.S. Must Avoid Embrace of Morsi

Many in the Obama administration may have heaved a sigh of relief this morning when Egypt’s election commission declared Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi the winner of the country’s presidential election. There were justifiable fears that the Egyptian military would complete the coup d’état it began when the country’s high court tossed the Islamist-controlled parliament out of office by stealing the presidential contest for its preferred candidate. By choosing to attempt to live with the Brotherhood rather than attempt to destroy it, the army may have avoided a bloody civil war that would have drowned Egypt in blood and destabilized the region even further.

But as much as Washington is relieved that the next stage of life in post-Mubarak Egypt will not be one in which the military rules alone, President Obama must resist the impulse to embrace Morsi or to behave in any manner that might lend support to the Brotherhood leader in the power struggle in Cairo that will undoubtedly ensue. As much as the United States should support the principle of democracy, Morsi and his party are no apostles of freedom. Though worries about the U.S. being tainted by association with a military who wishes to perpetuate authoritarian rule are well founded, the danger from a rising tide of Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring is far more dangerous to American interests.

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Many in the Obama administration may have heaved a sigh of relief this morning when Egypt’s election commission declared Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi the winner of the country’s presidential election. There were justifiable fears that the Egyptian military would complete the coup d’état it began when the country’s high court tossed the Islamist-controlled parliament out of office by stealing the presidential contest for its preferred candidate. By choosing to attempt to live with the Brotherhood rather than attempt to destroy it, the army may have avoided a bloody civil war that would have drowned Egypt in blood and destabilized the region even further.

But as much as Washington is relieved that the next stage of life in post-Mubarak Egypt will not be one in which the military rules alone, President Obama must resist the impulse to embrace Morsi or to behave in any manner that might lend support to the Brotherhood leader in the power struggle in Cairo that will undoubtedly ensue. As much as the United States should support the principle of democracy, Morsi and his party are no apostles of freedom. Though worries about the U.S. being tainted by association with a military who wishes to perpetuate authoritarian rule are well founded, the danger from a rising tide of Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring is far more dangerous to American interests.

Too many in the administration have been taken in by the Brotherhood’s propaganda in which they have represented themselves as having no interest in imposing their fundamentalist principles on all of Egypt and the region. Inviting Brotherhood representatives to meet with senior administration officials earlier this year was mistake. As Eli Lake reported in the Daily Beast this week, this even extended to granting a visa to a known member of an active terrorist group.

The Brotherhood claims they will use Turkey’s Islamists as their model. That’s something that should provide little comfort to those who have watched as a secular state heads down the path of extremism at home and confrontation with Israel abroad. But the extremist character of the Islamist movement is difficult to conceal. Were the Brotherhood ever to seize control of all power in Cairo it would not only mean an end to any hope for democracy in Egypt, it would undermine the stability of other Arab countries.

That’s why it would be folly for President Obama to side with Morsi in the coming months or to give the impression that he supports the Brotherhood’s efforts to stop the military from acting as a check on its power.

It bears repeating that there are no good choices available to the United States in Egypt. President Obama has been woefully remiss in attempting to promote democracy, a policy that he seems to associate with the George W. Bush administration and therefore something to be avoided. There are not enough genuine liberals in Egypt, meaning the only real options are the military and the Brotherhood. America should choose neither.

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Let the Brotherhood Rule in Egypt

Egypt has had quite a wild ride since the Tahrir Square protests ousted longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Ever since, the carousel of Egyptian politics has gyrated wildly, but it seems it was spinning in a circle the whole time. Far from seeing the inauguration of a new democracy, we appear to be witnessing the transition from rule by one former general to collective rule by a bunch of active-duty generals. Egypt seems to be moving in the direction of pre-reform Burma–even the names of the two ruling juntas are remarkably similar and sinister: SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) in Egypt; SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) in Burma.

In both cases, the generals are claiming to save the people from the messy untidiness of democracy. In Egypt, that case has been somewhat strengthened by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood and hard-line Salafists won the vast majority of parliamentary seats and that a Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won this weekend’s presidential election. Even before the presidential results had been announced, the SCAF had dissolved parliament and instituted decrees that limit the new president’s power to largely ceremonial functions. All that remains to be seen is how the Brotherhood–the largest and most powerful non-governmental organization in Egypt–will react. Will the generals’ actions be quietly accepted, as they were in Turkey in 1980, or will they spark a bloody civil war, as they did in Algeria in 1992? Regardless, it is a tragedy that the will of the Egyptian people, who plainly long for Western-style democracy and not an Iranian-style theocracy or a sclerotic police state, is being thwarted.

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Egypt has had quite a wild ride since the Tahrir Square protests ousted longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Ever since, the carousel of Egyptian politics has gyrated wildly, but it seems it was spinning in a circle the whole time. Far from seeing the inauguration of a new democracy, we appear to be witnessing the transition from rule by one former general to collective rule by a bunch of active-duty generals. Egypt seems to be moving in the direction of pre-reform Burma–even the names of the two ruling juntas are remarkably similar and sinister: SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) in Egypt; SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) in Burma.

In both cases, the generals are claiming to save the people from the messy untidiness of democracy. In Egypt, that case has been somewhat strengthened by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood and hard-line Salafists won the vast majority of parliamentary seats and that a Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won this weekend’s presidential election. Even before the presidential results had been announced, the SCAF had dissolved parliament and instituted decrees that limit the new president’s power to largely ceremonial functions. All that remains to be seen is how the Brotherhood–the largest and most powerful non-governmental organization in Egypt–will react. Will the generals’ actions be quietly accepted, as they were in Turkey in 1980, or will they spark a bloody civil war, as they did in Algeria in 1992? Regardless, it is a tragedy that the will of the Egyptian people, who plainly long for Western-style democracy and not an Iranian-style theocracy or a sclerotic police state, is being thwarted.

I do not envy President Obama having to figure out how to respond. The American interest in democracy appears, in this case, to be at odds with our strategic interest, which is working with the Egyptian military, as we have since the 1970s, rather than trying to deal with the anti-Western, anti-Israel Brotherhood. The U.S. has considerable leverage over the process, thanks to the $1.3 billion in military aid that we provide to Egypt every year. How the U.S. uses that leverage can help to shape the outcome.

Tempting as it is for the U.S. to acquiesce in the military’s latest power grab, it is a mistake. The military is either ushering in the day of reckoning (if civil war breaks out) or delaying it (if it doesn’t). Either way, Egypt’s long-term prospects are not served by this decision, because it will allow the Brotherhood to claim the cloak of martyrdom. The best bet in the long run for weakening Brotherhood authority would be to allow it to rule. Already, the Brotherhood’s appeal seems to have declined since the parliamentary elections which ended in January. Undoubtedly, if the Brotherhood were granted full authority over Egypt’s dysfunctional state and anemic economy, its popularity would decline some more–unless it were able to moderate its wilder instincts and deliver real results. By keeping the Brotherhood out of power, the SCAF is taking upon itself all the blame for Egypt’s dire condition–not a wise long-term bet.

The U.S. will share that popular opprobrium if it appears to connive in this military coup. Obama would be better advised to tell the generals, in no uncertain terms, that they need to take a step back from the political arena. The military should still have a role to play but only as a guarantor of the election process. As long as a Brotherhood government must face voters in the future, popular sentiment will act as a check on its illiberal tendencies. The days of military rule have long passed in Egypt. The military just doesn’t know it yet.

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Egypt Headed Off Islamist Cliff

The torching of the headquarters of Egyptian presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik yesterday should have been a reminder to those blithely assuming the Muslim Brotherhood might roll over and play dead (in the wake of the seeming rebuke the party received in last week’s presidential election) that they ought never to underestimate the Islamist group. It’s true that Islamist candidates got less than half of the votes cast in the first round of voting and the emergence of Shafik–a secular former military officer who was a surprise second place finisher just behind the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi–showed there was a significant constituency for an alternative to the party that received three quarters of the vote in the parliamentary elections last year. But as Eric Trager writes in the New Republic, reports of the Brotherhood’s demise were and are greatly exaggerated. With Morsi and Shafik set to face off later this month in a runoff, the Islamists are still in an excellent position to win the presidency and complete their stranglehold on power.

Trager points out that the Brotherhood has an overwhelming advantage in organization, as it is the country’s only true national party with grass-roots cadres who are deeply committed to its triumph. With many Egyptians disgusted with the runoff’s choice of an Islamist or a Mubarak retread, the odds are very much in favor of the Brotherhood’s otherwise uninspiring candidate coming out on top. Though the Obama administration and much of its cheering section in the press have tried in recent months to downplay the nature of the threat the Brotherhood poses to regional security and U.S. influence, the completion of the party’s conquest of Egypt will be a watershed in America’s Middle East policy.

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The torching of the headquarters of Egyptian presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik yesterday should have been a reminder to those blithely assuming the Muslim Brotherhood might roll over and play dead (in the wake of the seeming rebuke the party received in last week’s presidential election) that they ought never to underestimate the Islamist group. It’s true that Islamist candidates got less than half of the votes cast in the first round of voting and the emergence of Shafik–a secular former military officer who was a surprise second place finisher just behind the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi–showed there was a significant constituency for an alternative to the party that received three quarters of the vote in the parliamentary elections last year. But as Eric Trager writes in the New Republic, reports of the Brotherhood’s demise were and are greatly exaggerated. With Morsi and Shafik set to face off later this month in a runoff, the Islamists are still in an excellent position to win the presidency and complete their stranglehold on power.

Trager points out that the Brotherhood has an overwhelming advantage in organization, as it is the country’s only true national party with grass-roots cadres who are deeply committed to its triumph. With many Egyptians disgusted with the runoff’s choice of an Islamist or a Mubarak retread, the odds are very much in favor of the Brotherhood’s otherwise uninspiring candidate coming out on top. Though the Obama administration and much of its cheering section in the press have tried in recent months to downplay the nature of the threat the Brotherhood poses to regional security and U.S. influence, the completion of the party’s conquest of Egypt will be a watershed in America’s Middle East policy.

Unfortunately, it’s almost certainly too late for the United States to do anything to alter this outcome even if President Obama wanted to. Those who have criticized the administration for its abandonment of Mubarak during the initial Arab Spring protests may be hoping that Shafik will win and therefore stop the country’s drift toward extremist Islam. But outside of minority communities such as the Christian Copts who rightly fear for their fate under a government dominated by the Brotherhood, it’s not clear that most Egyptians would tolerate a retread from the old regime. In fact, Shafik may turn out to be the perfect foil for the Brotherhood, because he could move many secularists to support the Islamists rather than countenance a return to the Mubarak era.

That will mean an end to hopes for the emergence of a genuine democracy in Egypt, as it is unlikely a Brotherhood government will allow itself to ever be voted out. As Trager writes:

When only one group can organize effectively in a newly competitive political environment, single-party domination becomes practically inevitable—with potentially devastating consequences. After all, the dominant party can nominate just about anyone, and win. And if it uses its power to prevent potential competitors from emerging, it can also get away with just about anything.

The consequences for the peace treaty with Israel are obvious. President Obama may think he will have more “flexibility” to impose his ideas about Middle East peace in a second term. But unless something happens in the next three weeks to derail the Brotherhood, the basic strategic equation of the region will be altered in favor of the Islamists and their Hamas allies rendering any further talk about the peace process a fantasy.

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Islamists Threaten Insurgency Should Secularists Win Egypt Election

Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while still mayor of Istanbul, famously quipped, “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.” Alas, as Martin Kramer has so often warned, it appears that Egypt Islamists are taking the same tact. On May 19, Islamic Jihad Organization member Shaykh Usamah Qasim took to the pages of Al-Misri al-Yawm to warn that Islamists would not tolerate a victory by any of the non-Islamist candidates. According to a translation provided by the Open Source Center:

…The victory of former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq or former Arab League chief Amr Musa in the coming presidential elections would lead some Islamic and non-Islamic groups to respond with “armed action.” “Thus, the fate of any of them who reaches the presidency will be like that of former President Anwar al-Sadat, who was assassinated,” Qasim said.

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Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while still mayor of Istanbul, famously quipped, “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.” Alas, as Martin Kramer has so often warned, it appears that Egypt Islamists are taking the same tact. On May 19, Islamic Jihad Organization member Shaykh Usamah Qasim took to the pages of Al-Misri al-Yawm to warn that Islamists would not tolerate a victory by any of the non-Islamist candidates. According to a translation provided by the Open Source Center:

…The victory of former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq or former Arab League chief Amr Musa in the coming presidential elections would lead some Islamic and non-Islamic groups to respond with “armed action.” “Thus, the fate of any of them who reaches the presidency will be like that of former President Anwar al-Sadat, who was assassinated,” Qasim said.

One-in-three Middle Eastern Arabs live in Egypt. Unfortunately, it looks like the Nile may once again flow with blood.

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Muslim Brotherhood Goes Hardline

Political mainstreaming will cause the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to embrace moderation and responsibility, said the same people who predicted the same things about Hamas and Hezbollah. Yet again, something seems to have gone awry:

On the campaign trail for the presidential election, now only nine days away, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken a sharp turn rightward…
“We are seeing the dream of the Islamic caliphate coming true at the hands of Mohammed Morsi,” said cleric Safwat Hegazy at a campaign rally for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for president.

According to a Muslim Brotherhood preacher, incidentally, the capital of that revived caliphate will be Jerusalem. For the Brotherhood, in other words, “the dream of the Islamic caliphate” is a foreign policy package.

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Political mainstreaming will cause the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to embrace moderation and responsibility, said the same people who predicted the same things about Hamas and Hezbollah. Yet again, something seems to have gone awry:

On the campaign trail for the presidential election, now only nine days away, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken a sharp turn rightward…
“We are seeing the dream of the Islamic caliphate coming true at the hands of Mohammed Morsi,” said cleric Safwat Hegazy at a campaign rally for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for president.

According to a Muslim Brotherhood preacher, incidentally, the capital of that revived caliphate will be Jerusalem. For the Brotherhood, in other words, “the dream of the Islamic caliphate” is a foreign policy package.

And now here is State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland last March, downplaying the rise of Islamists in Egypt. Obama had spent months punting on the issue, and the administration found itself needing to get out of grim news cycle after news cycle. The result was a pattern of willful denial, including these unblinking statements about the Egyptian Constitution panel:

“We’re not going to prejudge, obviously, the work of this [Constitutional] panel,” Nuland said… “This panel is from the elected parliament, so having been elected democratically, it’s now their obligation to uphold and defend and protect the democratic rights that brought them to power in the first place.”

Egypt’s presidential candidates, who recently sparred in a televised debate about who will implement sharia more, seem to part ways with Nuland over liberal democratic rights. So do the Egyptian courts. So does the Egyptian public. The question arises – as usual – whether the administration is being unblinkingly dishonest or mindblowingly naive.

Populist Islamism would be less of a problem if there were any Egyptian checks left on religiously-motivated violence. Egypt’s Christians are openly predicting that the status quo – which already involves anti-Christian attacks committed with uttery legal impunity – is going to seem bucolic compared to the post-election environment. And of course, anti-Semitism is so deeply ingrained that political operatives go on TV to accuse journalists of being Jews: “I intend to file charges against you tomorrow and you will have to prove otherwise.” Charming.

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Brotherhood May Get Unlimited Power

The latest news out of Egypt constitutes, at least on the surface, a setback for the Muslim Brotherhood’s drive to obtain a monopoly on power in the world’s most populous Arab country. An Egyptian court suspended the proceedings of a committee that was drafting a new constitution. Considering that the Muslim Brotherhood dominated the body working on the constitution, this represents a victory for the embattled secularists and religious minorities that view the group’s rise with alarm. But in doing so, the court flipped the timetable under which Egypt was supposed to move toward a new government. The president Egyptians elect next month will now come to office prior to the adoption of a new constitution.

That means that person will be vested with the same powers held by authoritarian dictator Hosni Mubarak, whose fall last year during the Arab Spring protests set in motion these events. Should the new president be the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater or that of one of the other Islamist parties, he won’t need to write a constitution to fit his whims, the new leader will be able to transform the country via executive fiat. In which case the Obama administration’s faltering attempts to portray the Brotherhood as moderates or to work with a military that is rapidly losing control of the situation will all have been in vain.

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The latest news out of Egypt constitutes, at least on the surface, a setback for the Muslim Brotherhood’s drive to obtain a monopoly on power in the world’s most populous Arab country. An Egyptian court suspended the proceedings of a committee that was drafting a new constitution. Considering that the Muslim Brotherhood dominated the body working on the constitution, this represents a victory for the embattled secularists and religious minorities that view the group’s rise with alarm. But in doing so, the court flipped the timetable under which Egypt was supposed to move toward a new government. The president Egyptians elect next month will now come to office prior to the adoption of a new constitution.

That means that person will be vested with the same powers held by authoritarian dictator Hosni Mubarak, whose fall last year during the Arab Spring protests set in motion these events. Should the new president be the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater or that of one of the other Islamist parties, he won’t need to write a constitution to fit his whims, the new leader will be able to transform the country via executive fiat. In which case the Obama administration’s faltering attempts to portray the Brotherhood as moderates or to work with a military that is rapidly losing control of the situation will all have been in vain.

The absence of a new constitution will make the battle for the Egyptian presidency even more crucial for the future of the Middle East. But right now, it looks as if the Brotherhood is holding most of the cards. The popular candidate of its main Islamist rival may be disqualified. Former general Omar Suleiman, the army’s choice, may not get on the ballot. But even if he does, he will have little chance as he is associated with the brutality of the former regime as well as with its close ties with the United States.

The secular alternative, Amr Moussa, the favorite of many foreign observers, is finding himself boxed out by the rise of the Islamist parties. He’s also fending off the worst possible slur that can be suffered by an Egyptian politician: the charge that he has a Jewish relative. Moussa has fervently denied the accusation that he has a Jewish half-brother with Israeli citizenship as a scurrilous lie. Whether true or not, and it’s difficult to have sympathy for either side in that argument, the fact that this is the sort of thing Egyptians care about speaks volumes about a political environment in which extremist Islamists can be viewed by the Obama administration as “moderates.”

As previously reported, the administration recently entertained a Brotherhood delegation in the White House. As troubling as that development was, as Steve Emerson noted in his Investigative Project on Terrorism Website, it turns out that the welcome mat rolled out for the Brotherhood involved giving the members of the visiting group a pass on vetting for ties to terrorism or other crimes. As Emerson points out, the head of the Brotherhood delegation, Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, has been implicated in a U.S. investigation of a child pornography ring that relates to activities during a period when he lived in this country. But the State Department ensured Dardery was treated as a diplomat with blanket immunity from questioning or even inspection of his baggage or computers that is standard since 9/11 for visitors from Egypt.

The administration may think it can work with the Brotherhood, but if its presidential candidate obtains Mubarak-style powers, President Obama may find that a country that was once a key to stability in the Middle East will go completely off the tracks and take with it any vestige of American influence.

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Egyptian Outlook Grows More Desperate

While the Obama administration appears to be convincing itself that there’s nothing wrong with the Muslim Brotherhood acquiring a monopoly on power in Egypt, it looks as if that country’s military is panicking about the prospect. Though the Egyptian presidential race–in which the Brotherhood’s candidate and one from an even more extreme Islamist party are the favorites–may be in a state of flux, the decision of a former key member of the army leadership to enter the race may be a sign the generals are far from confident about what may be about to happen in Cairo.

The entry of Omar Suleiman, who served as head of military intelligence during the regime of Hosni Mubarak, into Egypt’s presidential sweepstakes adds one more element of uncertainty in a situation that may be about to unravel. Suleiman, who reportedly is still close with the army’s ruling council, is a much-hated figure among both secular liberals and the Islamists for his role in suppressing dissent under the Mubarak dictatorship. Even though observers give him little chance of winning, the decision of the army to have one of their own get into the race may show just how scared they are of the Brotherhood and its allies imposing its beliefs on the country. The fact that President Obama isn’t scared too may be even more frightening to those Egyptians wondering what their fate will be once the Brotherhood assumes control of the presidency as well as the parliament and the constituent assembly writing a new constitution.

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While the Obama administration appears to be convincing itself that there’s nothing wrong with the Muslim Brotherhood acquiring a monopoly on power in Egypt, it looks as if that country’s military is panicking about the prospect. Though the Egyptian presidential race–in which the Brotherhood’s candidate and one from an even more extreme Islamist party are the favorites–may be in a state of flux, the decision of a former key member of the army leadership to enter the race may be a sign the generals are far from confident about what may be about to happen in Cairo.

The entry of Omar Suleiman, who served as head of military intelligence during the regime of Hosni Mubarak, into Egypt’s presidential sweepstakes adds one more element of uncertainty in a situation that may be about to unravel. Suleiman, who reportedly is still close with the army’s ruling council, is a much-hated figure among both secular liberals and the Islamists for his role in suppressing dissent under the Mubarak dictatorship. Even though observers give him little chance of winning, the decision of the army to have one of their own get into the race may show just how scared they are of the Brotherhood and its allies imposing its beliefs on the country. The fact that President Obama isn’t scared too may be even more frightening to those Egyptians wondering what their fate will be once the Brotherhood assumes control of the presidency as well as the parliament and the constituent assembly writing a new constitution.

As Eric Trager writes in The New Republic, the Brotherhood’s Washington offensive has convinced many in Washington that there is nothing to fear from their drive to obtain absolute power in Cairo. But for the military, which seemed for a while to be confident it could go on governing Egypt in partnership with the Brotherhood without allowing the latter to enact fundamental changes in society, the group’s behavior in recent months is alarming. Though it has presented a smiling face of tolerance to American journalists, as Trager points out, there has been no alteration of their ideology or of their determination to transform Egypt into a theocracy.

As for Suleiman, he can expect especially rough treatment from the Brotherhood if he actually gets on the ballot for the May election. As the Associated Press pointed out, the Islamists were quick to brand him not so much as the official torturer of the Mubarak era but as the man whose task it was to manage the country’s relationships with the United States and Israel. The Brotherhood’s mocking welcome to the Suleiman candidacy was to post a picture of him in which he is posed against the backdrop of an Israeli flag. Those administration officials confident that a Brotherhood-run Egypt will keep the peace treaty with Israel or remain an ally of the United States (for which they receive more than $1 billion in annual U.S. aid) may eventually have a lot of explaining to do.

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Washington Helpless as Islamists Play for Keeps in Egypt

How bad is the current political situation in Egypt? So bad, it appears, that the Obama administration actually believes it ought to throw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop an even more radical Islamist from being elected to the presidency of the most populous Arab nation. That’s the predicament Washington faces after the Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate for Egypt’s presidency. But as much as the surge in popularity of the Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail may make a tilt toward the Brotherhood seem understandable, the situation illustrates the depths to which the administration’s Middle East cluelessness has sunk.

During the weekend, anonymous State Department officials told the New York Times they were quite happy about the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate entering the race for the Egyptian presidency. Though the U.S. rightly considered the Brotherhood to be a potent threat to American interests as well as Middle East peace, in light of the strength shown by even more extreme Islamists, President Obama’s diplomatic team now apparently considers it to be an acceptable alternative. But this U.S. tilt toward the Brotherhood is just the latest of a series of inept moves that has destroyed American influence in Egypt.

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How bad is the current political situation in Egypt? So bad, it appears, that the Obama administration actually believes it ought to throw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop an even more radical Islamist from being elected to the presidency of the most populous Arab nation. That’s the predicament Washington faces after the Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate for Egypt’s presidency. But as much as the surge in popularity of the Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail may make a tilt toward the Brotherhood seem understandable, the situation illustrates the depths to which the administration’s Middle East cluelessness has sunk.

During the weekend, anonymous State Department officials told the New York Times they were quite happy about the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate entering the race for the Egyptian presidency. Though the U.S. rightly considered the Brotherhood to be a potent threat to American interests as well as Middle East peace, in light of the strength shown by even more extreme Islamists, President Obama’s diplomatic team now apparently considers it to be an acceptable alternative. But this U.S. tilt toward the Brotherhood is just the latest of a series of inept moves that has destroyed American influence in Egypt.

Should the Brotherhood candidate for president succeed, it would create a dangerous situation in which this Islamist party would control both the executive and the parliament. This would place intolerable pressure on the army — which remains the sole force in the country that could act as a check on the Islamists — to back down and allow the Brotherhood untrammeled power.

Washington seemingly has no problems with this happening as it has bought hook, line and sinker, the Brotherhood’s claims it is now ready to embrace peace with Israel, avoid persecution of Egypt’s Christian minority, and promote a free enterprise model for economic development. As Eric Trager writes for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s website, the Brotherhood’s “détente” with the army command, in which they had promised not to try and run roughshod over secularists or to take over the country, is now in tatters, as their drive for power goes into overdrive. There is also the possibility the Salafis will beat the Brotherhood candidate anyway, in which case the country would drift even farther to the extremes.

Washington’s thinking appears to be that they would prefer an Islamist government along the lines of Turkey — which is what they assume the Brotherhood’s goal is — to one that is modeled after Iran. But either choice would be terrible. An Egypt in which the Brotherhood had a monopoly on power would not be friendly to the United States. And because the administration has discouraged the army from acting to head off the danger, it is difficult to see how any of this will turn out well unless the secular candidate, Amr Moussa, beats both Islamist candidates.

Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak last year. With our embassy now backing the Brotherhood, secularists and the army must assume the president means to ditch them, too. In the meantime, Washington has failed to promote secular democratic groups and then appeased the military by not putting hold on U.S. aid when Americans were prosecuted for aiding dissidents. In other words, the only thing consistent about U.S. policy toward Egypt in the last year has been its inconsistency.

The result is that Egypt, once a staunch U.S. ally, has now fallen into the grip of competing Islamist parties while Washington foolishly tries to play favorites among a group that has little use for American interests or values. The rise of the Islamists in Cairo strengthens the hand of extremists like Hamas among the Palestinians and reduces the already minimal chances for peace with Israel.

President Obama chose Cairo as the venue for his vaunted attempt at outreach to the Muslim world while slighting Israel. Yet, if there is anything we can conclude from the past year it is that Egyptians and other Muslims who are embracing Islamist parties throughout the Middle East have no interest in Obama’s ideas and no use for the United States. That Cairo will soon be in the hands of competing factions of Islamists is a sobering but fitting epitaph for the administration’s feckless foreign policy.

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