Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has had quite a week. He helped broker a cease-fire between his Hamas ally and Israel to the acclaim of the international community as well as the United States and his new friend President Obama. He followed that triumph up by issuing new decrees that effectively give him dictatorial powers over Egypt. In less than year in office, Morsi has amassed as much power as Hosni Mubarak had in his time in office as the country’s strongman and he has done it while getting closer to the United States rather than having his Islamist regime being condemned or isolated by Washington.
The full implications of Morsi’s ascendency are not yet apparent. But we can draw a few rather obvious conclusions from these events. The first is this makes the region a much more dangerous place and peace even more unlikely. the second is that the much ballyhooed Arab Spring turned out to be an Islamist triumph, not an opening for democracy. And third, and perhaps most disconcerting for Americans, it looks like the Obama administration has shown itself again to be a band of hopeless amateurs when it comes to the Middle East. While President Obama shouldn’t be blamed for toppling Mubarak, this episode is more proof of the gap between his foreign policy instincts and a rational defense of American interests.
If the cease-fire holds, the second Gaza war produced two clear winners: Mohamed Morsi and Barack Obama. Together, they brought peace after just eight days of fighting, thus showing their diplomatic clout. Morsi behaved not like a Muslim Brotherhood hothead but like a statesman–in fact playing much the same role as his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, did in (somewhat) reining in Hamas and serving as a bridge between the Palestinians and Israel.
Morsi did not use this new round of fighting to break relations with Israel, as many had feared, but rather cooperated constructively with President Obama to bring peace. Obama, for his part, avoided his first-term mistake of publicly criticizing Israel; he seems to have learned that his ability to press Israel for concessions (in this case, to avoid a ground incursion into Gaza that Israeli hard-liners thought was needed to enhance their country’s long-term security) increases when he shows no daylight between himself and Israel’s leader.
At the beginning of this year, as speculation over whether Israel was preparing to strike Iran’s nuclear program reached something of a crescendo, one of Israel’s most respected journalists sat down with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The journalist, Ronen Bergman, asked Barak about the former political and military figures who had begun to publicly argue against a strike. Barak responded with a reminder about the burden of responsibility he carries along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions,” Barak said. “But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.” Barak wasn’t trying to be dramatic; rather, he was making make a point about the historical weight that rests on nearly every major decision made by the Israeli leadership. Many in the press took this as a declaration by Barak that he would always err on the side of the hawks—why take any chances? But in reality, as we saw this week with Operation Pillar of Defense, it can often mean just the opposite. Barak Ravid reports:
Anglo-Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the darling of the moment among the anti-Western intellectual set, has a New York Times op-ed today which seems to translate his wishful thinking–he desires America to leave the Middle East to its own devices–into a prediction that we will in fact do what he desires. I very much doubt that we will do so, no matter who is elected president in November–and if we do the entire region will pay a devastating price. His history is as shaky as his prognosticating.
It is hardly reassuring that Mishra compares the U.S. departure from the Middle East to our defeat in Vietnam in 1975. He seems to imagine we were evicted from South Vietnam by a spontaneous nationalist demonstration. In reality, of course, South Vietnam was conquered by a North Vietnamese armored blitzkrieg. There was never a popular uprising in South Vietnam to express preference for rule from Hanoi; indeed southerners remain resentful to this day of the northern-dominated government (as I discovered on a recent trip to Vietnam).
The attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the Egyptian government’s lame response have understandably drawn international attention. But the same isn’t true for Egypt’s other provocative moves of the last month. And given that American and European officials have been claiming for years that Mideast peace is one of their top foreign policy priorities, their deafening silence over these moves is incomprehensible.
During this month, Egypt first violated the cardinal principle of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty by remilitarizing the Sinai, and then announced plans to spend a significant chunk of the international aid it is seeking on state-of-the-art submarines rather than its shattered economy. Both the treaty violation and the purchase of weaponry that has no conceivable use except against Israel clearly make the prospect of another Israeli-Egyptian war more likely, which ought to be reason enough to object: Of all the times Israel has tried ceding land for peace, the deal with Egypt is the only case in which it actually worked, so if the peace with Egypt goes, even doves like Israeli cabinet minister Dan Meridor have warned that Israelis will never sign another land-for-peace deal.
President Obama’s comments on Egypt conform to Michael Kinsley’s famous definition of a gaffe: when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. In an interview with Telemundo, Obama said:
I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy. They’re a new government that is trying to find its way. They were democratically elected. I think that we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident.”
As Alana notes, the administration immediately tried to walk back the president’s comment, with an NSC spokesman saying, “I think folks are reading way too much into this.” Hardly. When the president publicly questions whether a country like Egypt, which has been the second-largest recipient of American aid since the 1970s, is still an ally, it suggests that profound changes are afoot. As Obama suggested, it is still unclear where the new government led by Mohamed Morsi will end up–as an ally, an enemy or (more likely) somewhere in between, as a North African version of Pakistan.
Even before President Morsi’s accession to power in Egypt, many journalists, diplomats, and former officials traveled to Cairo to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood. In the forthcoming issue of COMMENTARY, I’ll talk a lot more about how so many Western officials came to see the Brotherhood as a partner rather than pariah. I won’t spoil that article, but not surprisingly, one theme is that the Brotherhood sometimes says one thing in Arabic and quite another in English.
The protests and riots in Egypt over the last couple days have provided a priceless example. While the Muslim Brotherhood’s twitter account in English said they were “relieved none of @USembassycairo staff was hurt,” their Arabic language tweets were praising and inciting the protestors. According to Al Ahram:
This reconciliatory tweet, however, was posted while the Brotherhood’s Arabic-language Twitter account and its official website were both praising the protests — staged against a US-made film judged defamatory towards Islam — and calling for a million man march on Friday. One Arabic language article on the Brotherhood’s site sported the headline ‘Egyptians rise to defend the Prophet’. Noting the contradiction, the US Embassy in Cairo tweeted a tart response from its own account: “Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”
In an interview with Telemundo, President Obama said that he did not consider Egypt an ally or an enemy. He may want to confirm that with the State Department, which still appears to have Egypt designated as a major non-NATO ally (MMNA). That designation gives it special status under the Foreign Assistance Act and the Arms Export Control Act:
The following countries have been designated as major non-NATO allies: Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Republic of Korea. Taiwan shall be treated as though it were designated a major non-NATO ally (as defined in section 644(q) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2403(q)).
Last month, the White House confirmed that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would visit Washington on the heels of the United Nations General Assembly session. The White House spokesman was cagey about whether Morsi would meet President Obama, but if Morsi is coming to Washington, he will have high level meetings.
Obama has now confirmed that he will not meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is too busy; after all, the David Letterman Show calls. Given the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo yesterday, and the inability of the Egyptian government to take full responsibility for the safety and security of American diplomatic personnel, it will truly be a reflection of where the White House stands if he meets with Morsi after the outrage in Cairo, but declines to meet with the Israeli prime minister.
It is time someone ask Obama just what Morsi is going to do in Washington and whether he should have any meetings until those responsible for the attack in Cairo are brought to justice.
The Arab Spring has made reporters understandably excitable at the first sign of popular discontent in the Arab world, especially in places previously unaffected by the revolutionary wave. And so the Associated Press report out of Hebron yesterday took the step of repeating for readers just how unprecedented the Palestinian anti-government protests were. It began with this sentence: “Palestinian demonstrators fed up with high prices and unpaid salaries shuttered shops, halted traffic with burning tires and clashed with riot police in demonstrations across the West Bank on Monday— the largest show of popular discontent with the Palestinian Authority in its 18-year existence.”
Seven paragraphs later, the reporters made explicit the comparison, and in an attempt to ward off the dismissal of the analogy repeated again the rarity factor at work here: “The unrest was reminiscent of the mass demonstrations of the Arab Spring that topped aging dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and sparked civil war in Syria. While there is no sign that the protests are approaching that level, they nonetheless are the largest show of popular discontent with the governing Palestinian Authority in its 18-year history.” Yes, the AP is right: the protests have reached unprecedented levels. But the more interesting aspects of the public unrest are not the parallels with the Arab Spring, but the contrasts.
When the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate won Egypt’s presidential elections, the comforting theory pronounced by diplomats and pundits worldwide was that power would force the Brotherhood to moderate its views: Once in power, its first priority would have to be rescuing Egypt’s shattered economy, and this would force it to avoid radical steps liable to antagonize Western donors.
That power isn’t moderating the Brotherhood is crystal clear already: Within two months of taking office, President Mohamed Morsi had already blatantly violated the cardinal principle of the peace treaty with Israel–the demilitarization of Sinai–by sending tanks into the area near the Israeli border without first obtaining Israel’s permission. But now it turns out the Brotherhood also doesn’t care about the economy. It’s only Morsi’s third month in office, and he is already negotiating to spend hundreds of millions of dollars he doesn’t have on something that won’t help the economy one whit: two state-of-the-art submarines from Germany.
Those watching the Democratic National Convention this week were subjected to a feedback loop of angry denunciations of Republicans for what we were told was their “war on women.” But if you want to see what a real war on women looks like as opposed to a political disagreement about abortion or whether Catholic institutions should be forced to pay for services, like contraception, that offend their faith, you need to look elsewhere. As the New York Times reports, despite their reassurances given to gullible Western reporters and the Obama administration, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is going full speed ahead with its campaign to impose its Islamist social agenda on the nation. And that agenda isn’t abortion or free contraceptives but a full-blown attempt to reverse the tenuous advances women made toward equality under the Mubarak regime.
Given the Muslim Brotherhood’s increasingly tight grip on the reins of power in Cairo this is not a theoretical question but one of vital importance for the future of the most populous Arab country. The Brotherhood says its priority is reviving the country’s economy and has convinced the Obama administration to forgive $1 billion in debt that they owe the United States and Western nations. As Max wrote earlier this week, this makes sense from the point of view of encouraging stability and seeking to encourage prosperity that will make the country less vulnerable to extremists. But we shouldn’t underestimate the Brotherhood’s determination to eventually wipe out secularism. Even more to the point, it seeks to gain political strength by promoting female subservience.
I am as skeptical as anyone of the intentions of the new Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt led by Mohamed Morsi. From the appearance of a veiled newscaster on Egyptian state television to the attempted remilitarization of the Sinai, there are certainly troubling signs of what the new regime intends. But there are also some positive signs—from Morsi’s interest in free-market reforms to the offensive he ordered in the Sinai against militants who attacked Egyptian outposts and his willingness to stick it in the face of his Iranian hosts by backing the Syrian revolt while on a visit to Tehran. It is simply too soon to tell how much of a threat—or not—the new Egypt will be.
Nevertheless the Obama administration is right to extend roughly a billion dollars in debt forgiveness to Egypt and to support a new IMF loan that could approach five billion dollars.
It’s always nice to see a totalitarian propaganda show disappoint its sponsors. Thus it’s hard to avoid chortling at the embarrassment suffered by Iranian leaders today when the much-heralded meeting of the Nonaligned Movement in Tehran went off in an unscripted direction.
The ayatollahs had made much of the attendance of President Mohammad Morsi of Egypt–the largest Arab state–and of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon of the United Nations. But they could not have liked what they heard from the two prominent visitors. Morsi openly came out in support of the revolt being waged by the Syrian people against Bashar Assad–Iran’s closest ally in the regime. “The Syrian people are fighting with courage, looking for freedom and human dignity,” he said prompting the Syrian ambassador to walk out.
Almost a decade ago, former Iranian literature professor Jalal Matini penned a piece in the U.S.-based, Persian language journal Iranshenasi, entitled, “The Most Truthful Individual in Recent History.” It was a study of Ayatollah Khomeini’s statements prior to seizing power, and his actions afterwards.
Shortly after, Iranian.com, an online Iranian-interest website, translated key portions of the article, only a few examples of which I reproduce here:
Western analysts and political scientists will be learning lessons from the Arab Spring for a long time. But among the most important and immediate was the revelation that the cynical core assumptions of realist foreign policy were disastrous for the region and the West. The mirage of stability lured president after president, all the while helping to stifle democracy, education, and women’s rights. The inevitable and violent end of that “stability”–which of course was anything but–has finally reset the Western outlook on dealing with the newly emerging regional power brokers.
Or has it? Freedom House’s David Kramer and Charles Dunne aren’t so sure the West isn’t about to relapse. Egypt’s foreign policy, under its new Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, is adapting to new realities—and so should Washington’s, they write in the American Interest:
First, bedrock principles should guide U.S. policy, and we need to be clear in public and in private what those principles are, stressing the importance of institutions versus personalities. The United States must stand firmly on the side of basic human rights, especially those of the most vulnerable, including women and religious minorities, and uphold freedom of the press, expression and association. It is particularly important that the United States press the Egyptian government to liberalize the environment for civil society and end its prosecution of international non-government organizations for their efforts to help Egyptians as they work toward democracy; investigations into domestic NGOs should also be ended. There must be rewards for advancing the political transition and real consequences for pushing it back.
The United States must also engage broader segments of Egyptian society and politics. The temptation is to pay too much attention to traditional political elites as well as President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as they seek to consolidate power, but that is a mistake. The U.S. needs to reach out consistently to young activists and liberal and secular parties; however feckless they might seem now, their ideas on democracy and governance were the ideological underpinnings of the revolution against Mubarak and have been broadly, if tacitly, accepted by wide swaths of the Egyptian body politic, including the Muslim Brotherhood. They will continue to play a significant role in Egyptian politics.
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.