For the last few months, conservative critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy have obsessed about its failure in Libya. The fiasco in Benghazi that took the lives of four Americans including our ambassador deserved more media scrutiny and Republicans are right to continue to demand answers about it. But the unfolding disaster next door in Egypt is a far greater indication of the way the president has blundered abroad than even that tragic episode. Obama’s decision to force the Egyptian military to accept a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and Washington’s subsequent embrace of Mohamed Morsi’s regime has materially aided the descent of the most populous Arab country into the grip of an Islamist party. The Brotherhood regime is determined to extinguish any hope of liberalization in Egypt and its drive to seize total power there is a direct threat to regional stability and Middle East peace.
Rather than using the leverage that the more than $1 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt gives it, the administration has loyally stuck to Morsi despite his seizing of powers that are comparable to those of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak and his efforts to violently repress the widespread dissatisfaction with his government. There is no sign that anyone in the State Department or the White House realizes that the U.S. bet on the Brotherhood is a disaster, but yesterday’s column by one of the leading peddlers of conventional wisdom on foreign policy ought to concern Morsi. If the Islamists have lost Thomas Friedman, then there is at least a little hope that their campaign to swindle American liberals into backing them is going to eventually crash.
The so-called Arab Spring began more than two years ago when a Tunisian fruit vendor, upset by the Tunisian regime’s corruption and lack of accountability, set himself on fire. It soon became apparent that nearly every Arab country was a tinderbox, smoldering under dictatorship and popular discord.
A chief symbol of regional corruption was the leader’s son. Hosni Mubarak had his son Gamal, a bag man for the regime and for Mubarak’s personal fortune. Muammar Qaddafi had Saif, who traveled across Europe and the halls of Congress, charming almost every diplomat or congressman he met, and signing billions of dollars of deals along the way. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, penned a Foreign Policy piece about how the sons of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have transformed their connections into fortunes.
Throughout much of the rest of the Middle East—Kurd, Persian, and Turkish—the pattern is the same: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had Qubad Talabani; Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani had his son Masrour Barzani; and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has Ahmad Maliki. Indeed, across the Iraqi and Kurdish political spectrum, there are few politicians who do not transform their sons into business agents or recipients of nepotistic largesse.
Apologists for the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt have spent much of the last year attempting to argue that the Islamist movement is not the extremist group its critics make it out to be. They claim it is not only moderate in its religious views but that it is a pragmatic organization that can be a stabilizing force in the region. The whitewash of the Brotherhood’s ideology is made possible by both the general ignorance of the American people about the group’s origins and its beliefs as well as by the willingness of many in the American media to buy into the transparent propaganda they’ve been fed about their goals. However, the hate speech of President Mohamed Morsi and his putsch to seize total power in the manner of his authoritarian predecessor Hosni Mubarak, as well as the group’s efforts to impose their version of sharia law on the rest of Egyptian society, should have cured them of their ignorance.
But the latest evidence of the radical nature of the Brotherhood government comes from its ally Hamas. Under Morsi, Egypt has become a helpful friend to the Gaza regime, a marked change from the hostility that Mubarak demonstrated toward it. But as Khaled Abu Toameh reports at the Gatestone Institute website, friendship between the Brotherhood and Hamas is a two-way street. He reports that Egyptian media outlets are saying that a large number of Hamas militiamen may have crossed from Gaza into Sinai in the last week and then headed to various Egyptian cities to help the Brotherhood suppress pro-democracy and anti-Islamist protests that have broken out across the country. If true, this not only means that the ties between the supposed “moderates” of the Brotherhood and the terrorists of Hamas are closer than ever, but that Morsi is seeking to use these killers as a counter-force against possible action by the Egyptian army to check his attempt to seize total power.
Some foreign policy realists are urging caution when assessing the impact of the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Egypt. The visit, the first by an Iranian leader since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, is an indication of the way the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt has warmed up toward a country that Hosni Mubarak spurned as a threat to stability.
But, as the New York Times reports, analysts believe Egypt’s continuing need for aid from both the United States and moderate Arab regimes that fear Iran as much as the Americans, will prevent a full restoration of diplomatic relations. But whether or not the two countries go that far or not, the symbolism of the embrace of Ahmadinejad by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (who visited Tehran last August) illustrates the way the Brotherhood’s ascendancy has fractured American foreign policy objectives in the region. The willingness of Egypt to embrace Iran in this manner undermines U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran and sends the world the message not to take President Obama’s threats about stopping Iran’s nuclear program seriously. It is also a reminder that the two countries have something in common besides Islam: leaders who engage in anti-Semitic hate speech.
Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is doing a victory lap around the networks this week, taking bows and basking in the admiration of a largely sycophantic media that agrees with President Obama’s glowing praise of her service. We know his praise, as well as the willingness of many in the press to buy into the notion that her willingness to spend a lot of time on airplanes is the same thing as a record of genuine achievement, is strictly political boilerplate. Clinton was a cipher at Foggy Bottom doing Obama’s bidding and has few, if any, actual successes to her credit along with disasters like Benghazi (for which she inexplicably took full responsibility but not blame). But it’s hard to see how her part in directing America’s involvement in the Arab Spring will be seen by history as anything other than placing her in the ranks of the most incompetent stewards of American foreign policy in the country’s history.
Anyone who doubts that evaluation need only ignore the softball interviews and breathless anticipation of another Clinton run for the presidency in 2016 and instead look at accounts of what is going on in Egypt today as the head of that country’s military described it as descending into “chaos.” Since as we noted yesterday, the president told “60 Minutes” that the transition from the Mubarak dictatorship to the current Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo was an administration success, those proclaiming Clinton among the greatest of our secretaries of state have some explaining to do.
As we noted last week, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s attempt to explain his anti-Semitic and anti-American televised rant to a group of visiting American senators was that his claim that Israelis were “the descendants of apes and pigs” was taken out of context. That was bad enough but as it turns out the first reports about the meeting fell far short of conveying just how offensive Morsi’s rationalization of hate was. As Josh Rogin reported yesterday at Foreign Policy’s blog The Cable, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware who was at the meeting said the Morsi implied that Jewish control of the media was the reason why he was being called to account for his hate speech.
This calls into question not just the continuing U.S. aid to the Muslim Brotherhood government headed by Morsi but the determination of the senatorial delegation, including its leader John McCain, to continue their support for the flow of more than a billion dollars in American taxpayer money to a hatemonger. The details of the meeting make it hard to understand how McCain could continue to justify such American support when the explanation for the Morsi rant is actually worse than the original anti-Semitic smears.
Better late than never is the only way one can describe the New York Times’s decision to run an article about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s history of anti-Semitic slanders. As we wrote here on Contentions two weeks ago, a video of an Egyptian TV interview with the Muslim Brotherhood leader from 2010 has surfaced in which he describes Israelis as “the descendants of apes and pigs” and called for a boycott of the United States. As I noted at the time, revelations about the nature of what passes for rhetoric about Israel and the Jews might come as a shock to readers of the Times–since much of their news coverage, as well as the work of op-ed columnists like Nicholas Kristof, had sought to portray the Brotherhood as moderate and friendly people who just happen to be Muslims–but not to those who have been following these developments without the rose-colored glasses that liberals seem to require to discuss the Arab world. The conceit of the piece about Morsi’s comment is, however, to call attention to the difficult position the Egyptian president has been placed in by reports about his despicable language.
Egyptian figures quoted by the Times get the last word here, as they seem to argue that it isn’t reasonable to expect Morsi to apologize since to do so leaves him vulnerable to criticism from his Islamist supporters and their allies who like that kind of talk. The conclusion seems to be that Americans should judge Morsi only by his recent behavior that has been aimed at least partly at ensuring that the flow of billions of dollars of U.S. aid should continue.
The problem is that Morsi’s use of a phrase that is commonly employed throughout the Muslim world to describe Jews as well as other comments that are straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is so common in Egypt as to make it almost unexceptionable. That is no small measure the result of Brotherhood propaganda and mainstream Islamist thought in which demonization of Israelis, Jews and Americans is commonplace. Try as writers like Kristof might to paint the Brotherhood as a responsible political movement, Jew-hatred is one of its core beliefs. The question here is not so much whether Morsi will publicly disavow these slurs but whether the Obama administration will continue to buy into the myth that Morsi is some kind of a moderate whose government deserves to continue to be treated as an ally.
Not much is expected to change at the State Department when John Kerry replaces Hillary Clinton. That’s especially true in terms of the Middle East, where Kerry is not expected to be any more eager to push Iran than Clinton. Nor is he likely to take a more jaundiced view of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt, which was been the particular object of U.S. affection in the latter half of 2012 as Mohamed Morsi consolidated power without much in the way of protest from an administration that continues to funnel billions in aid to Cairo. Kerry appears to share the State Department consensus that Morsi and the Brotherhood are deserving of continued American largesse and regards the Islamists as a moderating force in the region rather than as the enablers of Hamas.
It remains to be seen whether his former Senate colleagues will press Kerry much on the subject. But in case anyone on the Hill is inclined to buy into the happy talk about the Brotherhood that is being sold by the State Department and mainstream media outlets eager to portray the Brotherhood as the Egyptian equivalent of the Islamist government of Turkey that President Obama is so fond of, they ought to take a look at this video uncovered by Memritv.org, the indispensable window into the Arab media. In this 2010 appearance on Lebanon’s Al Quds TV, the Brotherhood leader and future Egyptian president not only denounces any peace negotiations with Israelis, whom he called bloodsuckers, warmongers, and “the descendants of apes and pigs,” but also called for a boycott of U.S. products.
Given the brazen nature of Hamas’s decision to provoke the latest round of fighting in and around Gaza, it’s difficult for Israel’s critics to claim that it was not justified in seeking to halt a barrage that sent more than 150 missiles into the south of the country. Nor could they claim with a straight face that Ahmed al-Jabari, the head of Hamas’s so-called military wing and a man responsible for numerous terrorists attacks and murders, is an innocent victim after the Israel Defense Forces took out his car in a deft targeted attack yesterday. But the naysayers are claiming that in opting to defend Israeli citizens and hopefully making it more difficult for Hamas to resume its terrorist offensive, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is effectively destroying his nation’s peace treaty with Egypt.
That’s the conceit of this New York Times article that depicts Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi as being forced into a difficult position by Israel. He is, we are told, trying to maintain the peace treaty in order to appease Western aid donors like the United States, but is still obligated by Egyptian public opinion to denounce Israel. The implication of all this is that if the treaty, which is despised by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and extremely unpopular with the Egyptian public, is scrapped, it will be because Netanyahu has chosen to be provocative.
For days, southern Israel was pounded by close to 200 rockets fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza. This morning, the Islamist terrorist group got its answer when the Israel Defense Forces launched a series of retaliatory strikes on its military leadership. Ahmed al-Jabari, the group’s top commander, was killed in an airstrike on his car as it drove down a Gaza street. The killing of al-Jabari was just one of 20 different attacks on Hamas operatives in an effort intended to both decapitate its terrorist hierarchy as well as to send a message to the Gaza regime that if it thinks it can rain down missiles on Israel with impunity, it has made a terrible miscalculation.
The Israeli counter-attack after the days of Hamas missile fire is clearly an attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to halt the assaults on his country without having to resort to an invasion of Gaza. While Israel can expect the world to condemn its measures of self-defense, Netanyahu cannot allow a return to the situation prior to the last IDF offensive into Gaza four years ago, when Hamas acted as if it thought there was no way for Israel to stop the missile fire on its borders. It remains to be seen whether, after another surge of rocket fire today following al-Jabari’s death, Hamas will take the hint and stand down.
But either way, these events effectively debunk the idea that Hamas has embraced non-violence and that the United States should reach out to it to join peace negotiations. That’s a narrative that was increasingly being promoted by those who sought to use the Obama administration’s decision to treat the new Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt with kid gloves. The decision over the past weekend by the Brotherhood’s Hamas allies to set in motion the events that threaten to plunge the region into a new round of deadly violence is also a reminder to Washington that it should be paying more attention to the security needs of its Israeli ally and less to what its new friends in Cairo are saying.
Say this for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi: he isn’t short of nerve. The Muslim Brotherhood leader has shoved aside the military and now presides over the most populous Arab nation with what appear to be few checks on his power. That gives him the confidence to tell the United States it must accept his Islamist government on its own terms and throw Israel under the bus. But it doesn’t mean he wants the American gravy train that funnels $1.5 billion to the Egyptian government to stop.
Morsi sat down with the New York Times for an interview that was published today and the portrait it paints of the Egyptian leader is one of a man who seems to have a fairly low opinion of President Obama. Rather than embrace an American leader who went out of his way to seek to win the heart of the Muslim world, Morsi thinks Obama needs to prove to Egyptians that he deserves to go on funding what is now an Islamist government. If that means accepting an Egypt that allows mobs to sack the U.S. embassy in Cairo before finally stepping in to halt the carnage, the Americans will have to like it or lump it. This attitude prompted even President Obama to say he wasn’t sure whether Egypt is an ally anymore (technically, it still is). But Morsi made it clear to the Times he’s going to be the one dictating the terms of the relationship, not the country that is continuing to fund Egypt. Even more important, by demanding that the Americans “must respect the Arab world’s history and culture, even when that conflicts with Western values,” Morsi laid down a marker that ensures that the West must either bow to Islamist sensibilities or face a continuance of outbreaks of violence like the ones we have seen the last two weeks.
If you want to understand why much of the Arab world is a basket case, it’s worth considering Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s address to an Islamic Solidarity Conference in Mecca this week. Morsi came out in favor of regime change in Syria. But the most urgent problem facing the Muslim world today, he said, is the Palestinian issue.
Now consider a few simple statistics: Since the Syrian uprising began 17 months ago, more than 19,000 people have been killed, including more than 2,750 in July alone, according to the Syrian opposition. The number of Palestinians killed by Israel during those 17 months is around150, according to B’Tselem – less than 1 percent of the Syrian total. In fact, according to Palestinian casualty data compiled by the University of Uppsala, the Syrian death toll over the last 17 months is greater than the total number of Palestinians killed by Israel over the entire 64 years of its existence.
Last week’s terror attack on Egyptian army troops by jihadists whose ultimate aim was to kill Israelis provoked an unexpectedly harsh reaction from Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The chaos in the Sinai is the direct result of the revolution that brought down the Mubarak regime. The Hamas government looked to benefit from the triumph of their Muslim Brotherhood allies, but the embarrassing slaughter of Egyptians by anti-Israel terrorists has led the new government in Cairo to shut down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. The prospect of increased security cooperation between Egypt and the United States is slightly encouraging, though Israel’s exclusion from talks concerning its border is both spiteful and foolish.
But while the crackdown in the Sinai and along the border with Gaza may be a hopeful sign the new Egyptian government is unwilling to be dragged into conflict with Israel by the Palestinians, the real news in the aftermath of the shooting is very bad indeed. Morsi’s sacking of Egypt’s intelligence chief (who ignored warnings from Israel about a possible terror attack) is one thing, but the decision of the Egyptian leader to fire two of the country’s leading generals is more than just a personnel shuffle. If Morsi has assumed power of the country’s military, the notion that the army would or could act as a brake on the Muslim Brotherhood has been shown to be a myth. His firing of Egypt’s defense minister and the army chief of staff makes it clear the Brotherhood is now completely in control of the country. This calls into question not just the future of regional stability but the Obama administration’s equivocal attitude toward the Brotherhood’s push to power.
As I noted yesterday, the Muslim Brotherhood is busily propagating conspiracy theories about Israeli guilt for Sunday’s terror attack in Sinai, which killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. But there’s a bright side to this story: For the first time ever, many Egyptians aren’t buying it.
True, dozens of demonstrators converged on the Israeli ambassador’s house Monday to demand his expulsion, asserting that Israel was to blame. But the real mob scene occurred at the slain soldiers’ funerals – where crowds chanted slogans denouncing not Israel, but the Muslim Brotherhood, and physically attacked a representative of the Brotherhood-led government, Prime Minister Hesham Kandil.
Nor did the media blindly regurgitate the usual conspiracy theories of Israeli guilt: They duly reported the Egyptian military’s assertion that the attack was perpetrated by terrorists from Sinai aided by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. Prominent Egyptian commentators even criticized the army for ignoring the intelligence warning Israel had shared, and President Mohammed Morsi for pardoning thousands of radical Islamists and freeing them from jail. And both in television interviews and on social media sites, many ordinary Egyptians blamed the attack not on Israel, but on Morsi, for having reopened the Gaza-Egypt border.
The outcome of the latest terrorist attack along the Egyptian-Israeli border leaves the two nations with a confusing situation. Masked Palestinian gunmen from the Gaza Strip entered Egyptian territory at sundown from the smuggling tunnels run by Hamas and then proceeded to attack an Egyptian military post. They killed 16 Egyptian soldiers who were settling down to their Ramadan feast, stole vehicles which they then loaded with explosives, and headed to the Israeli border with the apparent goal of kidnapping and/or killing Israeli soldiers and civilians. Fortunately, the Israel army reacted swiftly, blowing up one vehicle, killing several of the terrorists and forcing the others to flee into the Sinai. No Israelis were harmed.
The attack is an embarrassment in more than one way for the Egyptian government that is now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is allied with Hamas, which along with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, condemned the incident. But the lax security in the Sinai since the fall of the Mubarak regime has led not only to Sinai becoming a lawless region where terrorists roam freely. Even more important, the attack, which is just the latest attempt by Gaza-based Palestinians to assault Israel via the Sinai, makes it clear the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza has made it a terrorist enclave that presents a danger to Egypt as well as Israel. Though Israel is the boogeyman of Egyptian popular culture and the focus of a relentless hate campaign in the media there, it may turn out that the Palestinians are the real threat. The question is whether the slaughter of their soldiers — a crime that cannot be blamed on Israel — willl motivate the Egyptian army and the government in Cairo to crack down on both Sinai and Hamas-run Gaza.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with top Israeli officials yesterday, and made a powerful case against a renewed push for the peace process. She didn’t mean to, of course; she was actually exhorting the Israeli leadership to do whatever they must to get Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table. But she employed two arguments in support of her recommendation that in reality work against it. Haaretz reports:
According to an Israeli official who was briefed on the content of the meetings, Clinton told the different Israeli officials that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are the best partners the Israelis ever had, adding that “it is unclear who will come after them.”
If Abbas and Fayyad–who resolutely refuse to even meet with Israeli leaders face to face–are the best Palestinian “peace partners” Israel has ever had, it is clear the peace process has gone practically nowhere since it began. But the second comment is more important.
When the Arab Spring bug caught on in Egypt, in late January 2011, commentators rushed to explain that the Tahrir Square crowd was hip and Western, secular and “facebooked.” Never mind the rape of a Western journalist, Lara Logan, by the hip and Western revolutionaries – a fate visited upon other female journalists during the following months (see here and here). Everyone looked around, and the Muslim Brotherhood was nowhere to be seen.
This fact, alone, seems to have fed the facile illusion that the Brotherhood could not hijack the initial Twitter moment of the Egyptian revolt against Hosni Mubarak.
Since then, at each turn of the road, as the Muslim Brotherhood gradually hijacked the Egyptian transition, commentators told us there was no need to worry. The Muslim Brotherhood would only contest a small number of seats (they did not); they would not have a candidate of their own for the presidency (they did); and their candidate was moderate (he wasn’t).
I must respectfully disagree with Max’s wait-and-watch take on an Egypt ruled by Mohammed Morsi. One certainly wants to see a democratic Egypt. And it is not exactly indefensible that Washington expressed hopes the Egyptian military would honor the recent election results. There remains, after all, no viable long-term game plan that relies on dictatorship to keep fanaticism under wraps. But urging countries to respect election results must be accompanied by a clear-eyed vigilance about what those results may portend. Just as a military dictatorship does not a free society make, a theocracy—even a publicly “softer” one that might (might) have incorporated notions of democracy into its ruling framework—is also not the stuff of freedom and tolerance. And in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is very, very far from it.
There is too much evidence of the Brotherhood’s Islamist brutality, militant anti-Americanism, and seething anti-Semitism—both historically and currently—to wipe the slate clean and wait for the ennobling transformation that comes with governing responsibility. The lesson that votes do not constitute democracies has been learned in places such as Algeria in the early 1990s and in the Palestinian territories in 2006. In both cases, the ballot box served as a pathway to Islamist nightmare. Surely, hoping for the best future does not mean dismissing the past.
I’m with the always-sagacious Fouad Ajami: He argues in the Wall Street Journal that the new Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, ought to be given a chance to show what he can do. Perhaps he will turn out to be as bad as numerous critics suspect, but it’s also possible that he could turn out to be better than expected. If he concentrates on instituting free-market reforms to get Egypt’s sclerotic economy moving rather than concentrating on issuing decrees to ban such “immoral” behavior as drinking and wearing bikinis, he might well win over even secular Egyptians.
It is doubtful that the worst fears of his American and Israeli critics will come true, at least not in the short term–given how much power the army has kept for itself, Morsi would not be able to abrogate the Camp David Accords even if he wanted to. It may well be the case that he will provide more aid to Hamas and adopt a more belligerent tone toward Israel, but remember that even under the Mubarak regime, the Egyptian state pumped out a steady diet of disgusting anti-Semitic propaganda and looked the other way at massive smuggling into the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
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.