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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.