Commentary Magazine


Topic: Muslim Brotherhood

Arab Spring Illusions Are Dead. Good.

The Obama administration reacted to the news that an Egyptian court has dropped all charges against former President Hosni Mubarak with hardly a murmur of protest or even comment. Considering that from the beginning of the Arab Spring protests four years ago up through the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, the administration was a font of opinions, advice, and admonitions for Cairo the change was remarkable. This earned the State Department a rebuke from the editorial page of the New York Times, which condemned the decision and urged a return to efforts to promote democracy in Egypt. But for once it is the administration, which has made so many mistakes, especially in the Middle East, that is right. The Times may be the last to know this, but the Arab Spring is over and it is necessary for everyone from left to right to admit that it is time recalibrate our expectations about Egypt and to focus on the more important fight against radical Islam rather than a futile quest for liberalization.

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The Obama administration reacted to the news that an Egyptian court has dropped all charges against former President Hosni Mubarak with hardly a murmur of protest or even comment. Considering that from the beginning of the Arab Spring protests four years ago up through the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, the administration was a font of opinions, advice, and admonitions for Cairo the change was remarkable. This earned the State Department a rebuke from the editorial page of the New York Times, which condemned the decision and urged a return to efforts to promote democracy in Egypt. But for once it is the administration, which has made so many mistakes, especially in the Middle East, that is right. The Times may be the last to know this, but the Arab Spring is over and it is necessary for everyone from left to right to admit that it is time recalibrate our expectations about Egypt and to focus on the more important fight against radical Islam rather than a futile quest for liberalization.

The protests throughout the Arab world raised hopes in the West that at last, that region was about to undergo a necessary transformation from dominance by authoritarians to one in which democracy, or at least the founding of democratic institutions, might offer the hope of a new era of freedom. The Mubarak regime was a corrupt military dictatorship that was ripe for overthrow and both liberals and neo-conservatives hoped this would lead to better things for Egypt.

But we were all wrong. Rather than leading to a chance for genuine democracy, what followed was an election that brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood. Its goals had nothing to do with liberalization, let alone accountability on the part of the government. After a year of misery that would have led, if unchecked, to a far worse dictatorship than that of Mubarak, the people of Egypt took to the streets for mass protests that dwarfed those that ended the old regime.

That led to the current government led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It has no interest in further investigations of the conduct of the Mubarak regime, especially its last days as protesters were murdered by the same troops that are now the bulwark of the new military regime. Indeed, Sisi’s government may already be guilty of far worse in its efforts to suppress the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

But while the Times and others who condemn the deplorable human-rights situation in Egypt are not wrong about the nature of the new regime, they are dead wrong on the question of whether the United States should be trying to do something to undermine Sisi, such as cutting U.S. aid to Cairo.

Whatever we may think of Sisi and the collapse of hopes for change in Egypt as well as the minimal success of other such efforts in the Arab and Muslim world, the last four years have shown that there are other, bigger problems to be dealt with first before Westerners should worry much about the absence of democracy in that region.

Unfortunately, there was never a real constituency of any size in Egypt for liberal democracy. The choices there were always going to be between a stable, if authoritarian military government and one run by Islamists. Had the latter prevailed, Egypt would not only have been less free than under the military but it would have helped further destabilize the region and aided the efforts of Islamist terror groups like Hamas, which was allied with the Brotherhood.

Sadly, the Obama administration’s inconsistent and ultimately feckless policies alienated both Sisi and the Egyptians who blame it for the rise of the Brotherhood. It will take a long time before the U.S. will win back their trust. But the key question facing the region is whether Islamist groups like ISIS will overrun regimes that while neither democratic nor free, at least represent a bulwark against the tide of extremism and violence. That makes it absolutely essential that the U.S. continue to support governments like that led by Sisi and to assist them in the general effort to combat the wave of Islamist extremism sweeping across the region.

Which also means that both liberals and neoconservatives alike must put aside their illusions as well as their hopes about democracy promotion in the Middle East. The war against Islamism must be fought and eventually won first before we will be able to return to that discussion about the Arab world, if then. Those who cannot grasp this reality are being obtuse, not principled.

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Sinai Terror Shows the Danger of Ungoverned Places

Egypt has given residents living along the Gaza border 48 hours’ warning before their homes will be demolished to make way for a 500-meter-wide buffer zone that will segregate the strip from the Sinai Peninsula. This move comes in the wake of last week’s terror attack in which over 30 Egyptian soldiers were killed by Islamist militants. Despite protestations from Hamas, Egyptian officials have stated that they believe the attack was carried out with the assistance of Palestinian operatives. As such, Egypt plans to create a buffer zone that will destroy some 680 homes—one can scarcely imagine the international reaction if Israel undertook such a security measure. However, it is a sign of how the Sisi government is becoming increasingly serious about ending the lawlessness that has plagued the Sinai in recent years.

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Egypt has given residents living along the Gaza border 48 hours’ warning before their homes will be demolished to make way for a 500-meter-wide buffer zone that will segregate the strip from the Sinai Peninsula. This move comes in the wake of last week’s terror attack in which over 30 Egyptian soldiers were killed by Islamist militants. Despite protestations from Hamas, Egyptian officials have stated that they believe the attack was carried out with the assistance of Palestinian operatives. As such, Egypt plans to create a buffer zone that will destroy some 680 homes—one can scarcely imagine the international reaction if Israel undertook such a security measure. However, it is a sign of how the Sisi government is becoming increasingly serious about ending the lawlessness that has plagued the Sinai in recent years.

When Israel withdrew from the Sinai as part of the peace agreement signed with Egypt in 1979, it had good reason to believe that the territory was being transferred to a nation state that was at least relatively stable and that could secure the border. But what we have witnessed across the region more recently is that it is in those geographic areas where states have failed or have become weak to the point of absence that terrorist groups have best been able to flourish. The story has been played out repeatedly from Afghanistan to Yemen, Libya to Somalia, and from southern Lebanon to Syria and northern Iraq. And today large parts of the Sinai have become just such an ungoverned vacuum where al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups have dug themselves in and established strongholds. There, jihadist groups have carried out a spate of attacks against Egyptian police and military personnel, and have repeatedly targeted the Arab Gas Pipeline, disrupting the supply between al-Arish, Jordan, Syria, and the wider region.

The problems in the Sinai have been dramatically compounded by the peninsula’s proximity to another area of unstable statelessness: Gaza. When Israel withdrew in 2005, Gaza was theoretically handed into the care of the Palestinian Authority, but as some on Israel’s right had already predicted, it did not take long before the power vacuum created by the absence of the IDF was replaced by the militiamen of Hamas. The same, of course, had already happened after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, as the non-state actor Hezbollah entrenched its position in the area, turning it into a kind of Iranian backed fiefdom.

Militant groups in the Sinai, and the relative weakness of the Egyptian state in this large sparsely populated area, would ultimately prove to be of huge strategic significance for Hamas, with smuggling along the Sinai-Gaza border providing Gaza’s Islamist rulers with their primary source of weaponry, which otherwise would have been kept out by the Israeli blockade. At the same time jihadist groups in Gaza provided training and assistance to militants in the Sinai, while they in turn would periodically fire missiles toward Eilat and Israel’s Negev border communities.

The Sisi government, however, with its fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, finds itself squarely at odds with the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot Hamas. Since the overthrow of President Morsi, the Egyptians have pursued a sustained and serious policy of eradicating the hundreds of smuggling tunnels around Rafah, and during this summer’s war in Gaza Egypt intensified its operations against militants operating close to that border. Indeed, it would appear that under Sisi there has been a concerted effort to reassert the power of the Egyptian state throughout the peninsula. Now, with the Egyptians convinced of the Gaza connection to this latest deadly attack on their troops, the authorities have closed the Rafah border crossing and advanced plans for the construction of deep water-filled trenches to block any restoration of terror tunnels.

Most importantly, the Gaza-Sinai experience must be instructive for both Israel and the wider region. Israelis already look to the turmoil in Syria and consider their good fortune given the failure of both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in their misguided efforts to hand over Israel’s Golan Heights buffer to Assad. Similarly, as the wider region becomes more tumultuous and not less, Israelis must be all the more wary of gambling their national security on further territorial withdrawals in the West Bank, not least at a time when the PA has already proved so ineffective at maintaining order in the few localities it is currently entrusted with. And given the weak position of the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan, it would not be difficult to imagine ISIS rapidly spreading from northern Iraq to the West Bank hilltops overlooking Tel Aviv.

Desperate to appear as if it has any clout on the world stage, the EU will continue to push for Israeli concessions in the West Bank. Equally desperate to distract from its multiple failings throughout the region, the Obama administration will also increase its pressure on Israel to give ground. But as the Gaza-Sinai experience shows, creating another area of ungoverned lawlessness and instability on their doorstep is not an option Israelis can afford.

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Yes, Egypt Is Playing a Constructive Role in Gaza Conflict

With Hamas’s strategy of using human shields and threatening journalists, the blame-the-Jews strain running as strong as ever around the world, and the undeniably atrocious behavior of John Kerry, Egypt has mostly avoided the world’s ire as the conflict in Gaza continues. But with Cairo hosting the repeatedly failed talks, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s luck was bound to run out. And now his government is being unfairly castigated for its role in the ceasefire negotiations.

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With Hamas’s strategy of using human shields and threatening journalists, the blame-the-Jews strain running as strong as ever around the world, and the undeniably atrocious behavior of John Kerry, Egypt has mostly avoided the world’s ire as the conflict in Gaza continues. But with Cairo hosting the repeatedly failed talks, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s luck was bound to run out. And now his government is being unfairly castigated for its role in the ceasefire negotiations.

The complaint centers on Egypt’s post-Morsi role in the region. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was in power in Cairo, its Palestinian offshoot Hamas had a powerful friend next door. When violence last flared up between Israel and Hamas, Cairo facilitated a ceasefire–a process which left Hamas mostly unscathed and able to replenish its arsenal for the next round of fighting. But Sisi heads a military government that deposed the Brotherhood’s men in a coup. As such, Sisi doesn’t want Hamas to be able to rearm at will and cause trouble indefinitely.

It’s a logical position, and one that should be echoed in the West. But not everyone’s happy with Sisi’s lack of urgency in ending the fighting. An example of this argument comes from Michele Dunne and Nathan Brown:

This subtle shift — from mediator with interests, to interested party that also mediates — has led to a longer and bloodier Gaza war than might otherwise have been the case. And while a strong Egypt-Israel alliance was supposed to cut Hamas down to size, this strategy has also backfired on the diplomatic front. However much it has bloodied Hamas — and particularly the population of Gaza — the war has actually led to a breaking of international taboos on dealing with Hamas, a former pariah.

Egypt has always brought its own long-standing national security interests to the table in previous Gaza mediation efforts. Cairo has never wanted militants or weapons to enter Egypt from Gaza, nor has it wanted to take over responsibility for humanitarian or security affairs there, having had the unhappy experience of occupying the Gaza Strip for almost 20 years following 1948. Egyptian intelligence officials have always taken the lead in dealing with Gaza — even during the yearlong presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. While one might have thought that Morsi would have opened the floodgates to Hamas, the Brotherhood’s ideological bedfellow, in actuality Egypt kept the border with Gaza largely closed during his presidency and continued efforts to destroy tunnels. Whatever his personal sympathies, Morsi stayed within the lines of a policy designed to ensure that Egypt was not stuck holding the Gaza hot potato.

But after removing Morsi in a July 2013 coup, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then defense minister and now president, transformed Egypt’s policy toward Gaza into part of his larger domestic and international political agenda. He is clearly using Gaza to prosecute his own relentless crackdown against the Brotherhood — an effort that also helps cement his alignment with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

There are a few problems with this argument.

First of all, Nunne and Brown claim that Hamas has punctured its isolation thanks to Cairo’s tough line. I’m not at all convinced this is really the case, but let’s say it is. The more important question than whether the world is talking to Hamas is how the world is talking about Hamas. There is an unprecedented consensus that this is the moment to disarm Hamas and demilitarize Gaza. Is it a pipe dream? Maybe. But the Israeli/Egyptian opposition to letting Hamas off the hook has raised serious discussions about ending the Gaza blockade in return for demilitarizing the strip. And this idea has broad support at the Pentagon, in Europe, and among Arab states in the Middle East.

It might be true that if this doesn’t happen, Dunne and Brown have a case. But that leads to the second problem with their thesis: they have fallen into the classic trap of prioritizing ending this war over preventing future wars. They are nearly mutually exclusive goals. “This war” is not really a separate war, after all, from the last one or the one before that. As long as Hamas is in power in Gaza and able to rearm and threaten Israel, each truce is temporary and each ceasefire comes with an expiration date.

Another problem is that Dunne and Brown give Morsi a bit too much credit for containing Hamas. It’s true that Morsi cracked down on tunnels to Egypt. But as the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month:

Under the protective umbrella of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist-led government, Hamas had imported large quantities of arms from Libya and Sudan, as well as money to pay the salaries of government officials and members of their armed wing, Israeli and U.S. officials said. His successor abruptly changed that.

That’s a significant difference. Enabling weapons flows to Hamas guarantees future violence, so it’s a bit rich to see Morsi praised and Sisi criticized on this score.

And finally, Dunne and Brown–and the other critics of Egypt’s new role under Sisi–don’t seem to appreciate the fact that Sisi’s goals align quite nicely with those of the West. Doesn’t the West want terrorist groups like Hamas, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the rest to be defeated? I would think so.

And this is even more important in light of the news yesterday that Israel derailed an attempted West Bank coup by Hamas. According to Israel’s security officials, as the Times of Israel reported, “the plot was orchestrated by senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri, who is based in Turkey and enjoys the support of the local officials there.”

Any assessment of the balance of power in the Middle East has to incorporate the fact that Turkey is now not only helping Hamas, but enabling the planning of a coup against Mahmoud Abbas’s government in the West Bank. Egypt’s shift to dedicated foe of Hamas is a boon to the West’s otherwise fading influence in the region, and persuasively rebuts the idea that Cairo’s actions don’t align with Western strategic objectives.

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The Democrats’ Qatar Delusion

The reason John Kerry’s cease-fire proposal was so soundly rejected is because it did two very dangerous things. The first was that it would have tied Israel’s hands with regard to destroying the Hamas tunnels, the existence of which has had a deep psychological effect on Israeli society. (A good example comes from Israel’s Yediot Achronot newspaper, via Yaacov Lozowick, here: a front-page photo of a tunnel exit opening up into a child’s bedroom, with the tagline “Monsters do Exist.”) But the second is important as well.

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The reason John Kerry’s cease-fire proposal was so soundly rejected is because it did two very dangerous things. The first was that it would have tied Israel’s hands with regard to destroying the Hamas tunnels, the existence of which has had a deep psychological effect on Israeli society. (A good example comes from Israel’s Yediot Achronot newspaper, via Yaacov Lozowick, here: a front-page photo of a tunnel exit opening up into a child’s bedroom, with the tagline “Monsters do Exist.”) But the second is important as well.

Kerry had signaled that he was prepared to replace traditional interlocutors in the region–chiefly Egypt, though Cairo tends to speak for others who prefer to stay behind the scenes–with Qatar. This would be a monumental strategic error, one of the worst (of the many) the Obama administration has committed so far. The strange aspect of this indefensible mistake is that Qatar–a prime supporter of terrorists and of the region’s bad actors who subvert American interests at every chance–has nobody fooled except the Obama administration and its Democratic congressional allies.

Making the rounds the last couple of days has been this clip of Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who said the following about Qatar and Hamas:

“[T]his has to be something where we try to have the two-state solution, that we have to support…(Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud) Abbas and his role as a leader there. We have to support Iron Dome to protect the Israelis from the missiles. We have to support the Palestinians and what they need. And we have to confer with the Qataris, who have told me over and over again that Hamas is a humanitarian organization, maybe they could use their influence to–”

Crowley interrupted her to ask: “The U.S. thinks they’re a terrorist organization though, correct? Do you?”

Pelosi responded: “Mmm hmm.”

Here’s a clue for Pelosi: when you start a thought with “the Qataris … have told me” what follows is likely to make you look extraordinarily silly. Is Hamas a terrorist organization? Of course it is. Pelosi doesn’t seem too sure about that, so she’s asked the Qataris and they vouch for them as a humanitarian organization. Now, it’s true that Pelosi isn’t setting American foreign policy, something for which the universe can be eternally grateful. But the fact that Pelosi even went on CNN to repeat what Hamas’s patrons told her about Hamas’s humanitarianism shows the extent to which the current Democratic leadership–and virtually no one else–has been fooled by Qatar.

It’s tempting to dismiss Pelosi because, well, she’s Nancy Pelosi. But here’s a terrifying thought: if Nancy Pelosi were running America’s Mideast policy, it would look a lot like the pyromania-in-a-dry-forest we’re seeing now from Kerry. And at the center of that diplomatic arson is Qatar.

It’s unclear why the Obama administration and its congressional Democratic allies have fallen for Qatar’s act when no one else has. Criticism of Qatar over its promotion of extremism in the region is not exactly limited to the hawkish right. Here is Foreign Policy chief David Rothkopf this morning: “Expecting Qatar to help solve Gaza crisis is like expecting a tobacco company to help you stop smoking.” He was reacting to a CNN op-ed by Sultan al-Qassemi, who wrote:

The truth is that Qatar’s overall strategy with the Muslim Brotherhood has failed miserably: It resulted in the alienation of the Brotherhood in Egypt — so much so that the group was ousted from power in a popularly-backed military coup, and meant that many Egyptians were indifferent to the bloody massacre of the group’s members that followed.

Qatari support for Muslim Brotherhood affiliates elsewhere in the region, such as Libya, Jordan, and Tunisia, has also backfired resulting in them being sidelined from power. All of this adds to quite an unfortunate year for the Gulf emirate.

Qatar’s continuous financial and media support for the Muslim Brotherhood through the once-popular Al Jazeera Arabic, the 24-hour, Egypt-centric Mubasher Misr, which largely reflects a Muslim Brotherhood perspective, and a slew of new Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated news websites based in London, have further poisoned relations between Qatar and Egypt.

Israeli leaders can understand the American president’s desire for an immediate cessation of hostilities, even if they don’t agree with it. But the idea that Washington has decided to run Western policy through Qatar has left anyone who understands the Middle East completely puzzled. It would mark a significant shift and would signal to those in the region who rely on America that they’ll need to start, if they haven’t already, making backup plans.

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Hillary’s Flawed Hindsight on Mubarak

Hillary Clinton is dealing with the challenge of running for president while the failed foreign policy of the administration she served–as its chief diplomat, no less–is ongoing. But at least that gives her the opportunity to respond to events as they happen. Her memoir, by contrast, required her to record her pronouncements on events and hope they aren’t made irrelevant (or can be updated for the paperback edition).

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Hillary Clinton is dealing with the challenge of running for president while the failed foreign policy of the administration she served–as its chief diplomat, no less–is ongoing. But at least that gives her the opportunity to respond to events as they happen. Her memoir, by contrast, required her to record her pronouncements on events and hope they aren’t made irrelevant (or can be updated for the paperback edition).

This has made her book, according to pretty much every reviewer in the world, painfully, almost abusively boring. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting tidbits. One that has not received much attention is her discussion in the book of her disagreement with President Obama over how to handle Tahrir Square. When the crowds became impossible to ignore, the president called for Hosni Mubarak to step down. It put Obama on the side of the people in the streets instead of the ruthless dictator oppressing them–a lesson Obama may have learned from his experience turning his back on the Iranian people in 2009.

But it put him at odds with some in his own administration, Clinton among them. The former secretary of state portrays her side of the equation as realist, Obama’s as idealist, and claims Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon shared her concerns. She was, she said, “concerned that we not be seen as pushing a longtime partner out the door, leaving Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the region to an uncertain, dangerous future.”

Clinton then writes what may look in hindsight like prescience, but that view is flawed:

Historically, transitions from dictatorship to democracy are fraught with challenges and can easily go terribly wrong. In Iran in 1979, for example, extremists hijacked the broad-based popular revolution against the Shah and established a brutal theocracy. If something similar happened in Egypt, it would be a catastrophe, for the people of Egypt as well as for Israeli and U.S. interests.

Despite the size of the protests in Tahrir Square, they were largely leaderless, driven by social media and word of mouth rather than a coherent opposition movement. After years of one-party rule, Egypt’s protesters were ill prepared to contest open elections or build credible democratic institutions. By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood, an eighty-year-old Islamist organization, was well positioned to fill a vacuum if the regime fell. Mubarak had driven the Brotherhood underground, but it had followers all over the country and a tightly organized power structure. The group had renounced violence and made some efforts to appear more moderate. But it was impossible to know how it would behave and what would happen if it gained control.

In fact we really did know how the Brotherhood would behave in power, but that should only strengthen Hillary’s perceived caution here. She recommended the president send an envoy to Mubarak with a few concessions: “an end to the country’s repressive emergency law that had been in effect since 1981, a pledge not to run in the elections already planned for September, and an agreement not to put forward his son Gamal as his successor.” None of this would have placated the opposition, but it didn’t matter: the envoy presented the proposal, and Mubarak wasn’t even listening. “Like so many autocrats before him,” Clinton writes of Mubarak, “he had come to view himself as inseparable from the state.”

And that is why Clinton’s proposal to keep Mubarak in place and buy time would have been doomed as well. Her assessment of the political organization of the Muslim Brotherhood is correct, but she’s wrong to think a minor delay in Mubarak’s ouster would have made a difference.

Political liberalism needs its own institutions to flourish. Egypt didn’t have the civil society infrastructure for democracy, and it would have taken years to build even a rudimentary foundation. That’s why Clinton’s own administration dropped the ball on Egypt and the Arab world in part by cutting funding for democracy promotion and civil society groups there. And it’s a mistake the Obama administration is intent on repeating. As Jamie Dettmer reports, Obama is not only seeking further cuts in democracy programs, but wants to remove important safeguards for civil society programs that it will fund. “This is turning the clock back to when the State Department would avoid funding civil society groups blacklisted by their governments,” the director of one D.C.-based nonprofit told Dettmer.

As Elliott Abrams wrote in this magazine in 2012, “I well remember a leading Egyptian liberal saying to me in 2003 that she did not favor free elections right then in Egypt; she favored them in a decade’s time if she and others had those 10 years to organize freely.” A free election right away meant a victory for either the Brotherhood or the regime. Which is what Hillary feared, and what happened.

But the real solution would have been to use America’s leverage over the army–the Egyptian army, remember, abandoned Mubarak when the time came–to open up the political system, gradually if necessary, to the liberals. It was already de facto open to Islamist organizing, which took place in the mosques.

Even if Mubarak announced some reforms to Tahrir Square, would they have believed him? He had liberalized, albeit only slightly, in the past only to tighten his grip again when the Americans’ backs were turned. The Mubarak regime was a recipe for perpetual oppression and was responsible, like it or not, for the simultaneous strengthening of the Brotherhood.

The “stability” mirage, for which Hillary argued, fooled a lot people–maybe even most. But it has now been exposed as the mirage it was. The administration’s policy needn’t have propped up an aging dictator for a few more months, it only needed to stop abandoning Egypt’s true democrats.

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Too Late for Obama to Get Right with Egypt

If there has been one thing that has been consistent about the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt, it has been bad timing. The latest shift in the U.S. attitude toward Cairo came yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting with the country’s leaders that the U.S. was ready to repair its relations with the military government that has ruled the country since last summer’s coup. Read More

If there has been one thing that has been consistent about the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt, it has been bad timing. The latest shift in the U.S. attitude toward Cairo came yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting with the country’s leaders that the U.S. was ready to repair its relations with the military government that has ruled the country since last summer’s coup. Given that the regime led by President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi is clearly ensconced in power and seems to have the support of most of its people, this decision is a good idea even if it comes far too late to do much to actually do the U.S. much good. President Obama’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood government that Sisi overthrew was a mistake that was compounded by Washington’s futile efforts to head off the coup and then impose cuts in aid to Egypt’s military. These measures did nothing to make the military respect human rights or increase support for democracy in Egypt. But they did convince most Egyptians that the U.S. was out of touch with their desire to end the ill-fated experiment with an Islamist government. But by making this belated statement on the eve of the Cairo government’s sentencing of journalists for assisting the Brotherhood, Kerry lost whatever little leverage or standing he might have had in pushing Sisi not to go overboard in his campaign against the Brotherhood. Bad timing has been the hallmark of the administration’s path to its current dilemma. Obama stuck too long with the old regime led by Hosni Mubarak to suit most Egyptians who were ready for change during the 2011 Arab Spring protests that swept the country. But by pushing hard for Mubarak’s ouster after being on his side for so long convinced no one of America’s good intentions. But once Mubarak was out, the president shifted his ground and began working to pave the way for a Muslim Brotherhood-led regime against the wishes of the country’s military that hoped to avert that outcome. Washington was ruthless in threatening dire consequences against the army when it tried to stop the Brotherhood from winning Egypt’s first election and then seemed to support the Islamists once they were firmly in power. When a year of Mohamed Morsi’s government convinced tens of millions of Egyptians to take to the streets in the summer of 2013 to urge the Brotherhood’s ouster, Obama again waited too long to recognize this reality. He was seen as seeking to stop the mass movement aimed at averting the country’s slide into unchecked Islamist tyranny. When the U.S. punished the military government that overthrew Morsi to popular acclaim, that ended any chance of regaining American influence in the world’s most populous Arab nation. Sisi’s government’s ruthless suppression of the Brotherhood makes sense to Egyptians who understand that they must choose between the military and the Islamists. Sisi is right to regard the Brotherhood as a deadly foe that must be crushed now if Egypt is not going to have to face more violence in the future. But it hardly enhances the image of the U.S. as a friend to freedom everywhere for Obama to have finally given in on this point just as Sisi was imprisoning journalists and sentencing large numbers of Brotherhood members to death. Second guessing any president is easy, but the plain fact is that this administration has managed to mess up even those decisions that were correct. At this point, President Obama has alienated virtually everyone in Egypt. Sisi’s government has the power to help influence the Palestinians to reject Hamas as well as providing an anchor for regional stability if it survives, as it probably will, the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to take back power. Though the U.S. retains the leverage that its large annual aid to the country gives it, there is little chance anyone in Cairo takes Obama’s admonitions seriously, even when he is right. Egypt is far from being the only foreign-policy disaster that can be laid at the feet of this president. The collapse in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, throwing away its leverage to stop Iran’s nuclear threat, abandoning Syria and then backing away from efforts to punish the Assad regime in Syria, and a foolish “reset” of relations with Russia that led to more aggression from Moscow loom larger than Obama’s streak of bad timing in Egypt. But, like those other examples, Egypt has highlighted the president’s inability to make a decision and his poor choices when he does make up his mind. Having first articulated his flawed vision of a new Middle East policy in a 2009 speech in Cairo, it is both ironic and fitting that Egypt is also a reminder of just how amateurish this administration’s approach to foreign policy has always been.

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Obama Drops the Ball in Egypt

It must be hard for President Obama to keep up with the cascade of crises that have erupted on the world stage, especially when there are more pressing issues such as a discussion with American Indian youth in North Dakota, a trip for which Obama could find no room on Air Force One for his national security advisor.

It seems like ancient history now, but before the current crisis in Iraq, and before the Russian invasion of Crimea, and before China began threatening its maritime neighbors from Japan to the Philippines to Vietnam, Egypt was at the eye of the storm. In the weeks and months after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist groups established themselves in the Sinai Peninsula. During Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s abbreviated tenure, the Muslim Brotherhood turned a blind eye to the worsening security situation in the Sinai and, indeed, may even have encouraged it.

After the Egyptian people rose up against Morsi, an event followed in short succession by the Egyptian military’s putsch, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved to restore security. He sought American assistance, but received only lackluster commitment. Finally, however, the Obama administration came around and approved the transfer of ten Apache helicopters to Cairo in order to assist the Egyptian fight against terrorism. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin have testified that the Apaches were a central part of Egypt’s fight against terror. Egyptians celebrated the administration’s decision to lift the ban on sending the Apaches to Egypt as a sign that, despite disputes regarding Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the democratic process, Washington was ready to re-engage with Cairo and move on.

Enter Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont): Upset with Morsi’s fate, Leahy put a hold on $650 million in security assistance to Egypt, although he has now approved $572 million. What he continues to put his foot down upon is the transfer of the Apaches, currently warehoused in Fort Hood. The longer the Apaches sit in Texas, the more potent the threat in the Sinai becomes. If there’s one lesson the administration and Congress should have learned, it is that allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to sink roots in any territory spreads instability.

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It must be hard for President Obama to keep up with the cascade of crises that have erupted on the world stage, especially when there are more pressing issues such as a discussion with American Indian youth in North Dakota, a trip for which Obama could find no room on Air Force One for his national security advisor.

It seems like ancient history now, but before the current crisis in Iraq, and before the Russian invasion of Crimea, and before China began threatening its maritime neighbors from Japan to the Philippines to Vietnam, Egypt was at the eye of the storm. In the weeks and months after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist groups established themselves in the Sinai Peninsula. During Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s abbreviated tenure, the Muslim Brotherhood turned a blind eye to the worsening security situation in the Sinai and, indeed, may even have encouraged it.

After the Egyptian people rose up against Morsi, an event followed in short succession by the Egyptian military’s putsch, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved to restore security. He sought American assistance, but received only lackluster commitment. Finally, however, the Obama administration came around and approved the transfer of ten Apache helicopters to Cairo in order to assist the Egyptian fight against terrorism. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin have testified that the Apaches were a central part of Egypt’s fight against terror. Egyptians celebrated the administration’s decision to lift the ban on sending the Apaches to Egypt as a sign that, despite disputes regarding Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the democratic process, Washington was ready to re-engage with Cairo and move on.

Enter Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont): Upset with Morsi’s fate, Leahy put a hold on $650 million in security assistance to Egypt, although he has now approved $572 million. What he continues to put his foot down upon is the transfer of the Apaches, currently warehoused in Fort Hood. The longer the Apaches sit in Texas, the more potent the threat in the Sinai becomes. If there’s one lesson the administration and Congress should have learned, it is that allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to sink roots in any territory spreads instability.

It would be wrong for Obama to simply blame Leahy for the failure of the United States to uphold its commitments. The White House actually has various tools at its disposal to legally maneuver around Leahy’s hold. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The Pentagon does have some budgetary discretion and flexibility, although it needs direction from the White House and Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Some more familiar with procedures on Capitol Hill than I am point out that the Apaches were procured and transfer funding was included in the FY 2009 funding package, and so OMB has some flexibility to reprogram that funding. If the question is merely funding for the transfer and Leahy won’t budge, perhaps it is worthwhile to see whether a third party could provide that resource: After all, many countries have a joint interest in denying safe-haven for al-Qaeda, even if the good senator from Vermont does not.

It does not seem, however, that Leahy is intractable. The administration has yet to actually fight Leahy. Given the chaos in Iraq and Syria, the necessity for Egypt to protect itself against terrorists based in the Sinai is clear. Unfortunately, once again, it seems the White House is letting the ball drop.

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Return of the War That Never Went Away

The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

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The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.

There is an obvious argument to be made for intervening in Iraq but not Syria: our previous involvement there. But that argument faded greatly after Obama decided the war was over and our combat mission ended. Now we’re back basically on the outside looking in. At this point, can Obama clearly make a case for additional strikes in Iraq that would still logically avoid implicitly making the case for the same in Syria? Sentimental value won’t count for much.

Obama has put great effort into differentiating conflicts so as to avoid a game of intervention dominoes, for instance by agreeing to decapitate the Gaddafi regime but not the house of Assad. He rejected the idea of humanitarian intervention in Syria as well, arguing that that the U.S. did not have a responsibility to protect but did have an obligation to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Seeking to build a case for possibly stepping up its aid to the Syrian rebels, Obama was shifting to “emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda.” By that standard, Iraq beckons as well.

Perhaps Obama could at least make the argument that Syria and Iraq can be taken together as one conflict and thus not a harbinger of broader military action in the region. But the Times report shows why that would be a tall order:

The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

Right. And suddenly it becomes clear: We’re fighting a (gasp!) global war on terror.

The compartmentalization of conflicts by Obama and others was a necessary element for them to oppose the Bush administration’s war on terror because it was the only way to conceptually remove the common thread that held together Bush’s strategy. But that relied on the belief that the international state system was intact and robust enough to deal with international terrorism. It was a nice idea, but it proved naïve and dangerous.

Obama learned this when he sent forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. He learned it again when he had to send drones after Yemen-based terrorists. He learned and relearned it throughout the Arab Spring, as dictatorships fell and transnational terror networks like the Muslim Brotherhood rose. He learned it when weapons from the Libyan civil war fueled a military coup in Mali. He learned it when his administration practically begged the Russian government to accept American counterterrorism help to safeguard the Olympics in Sochi.

And now he’s looking at a stateless mass of terrorism stretching across the Middle East but specifically melding the Syria and Iraq conflicts. He’s looking at a global terror war and trying to figure out increasingly creative ways not to say so. Obama wanted this war to be a different war, and to be over. But he forgot that the enemy always gets a vote. And we still have a lot of enemies.

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No, Egypt’s Generals Don’t Cause Terrorism

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, dedicates his monthly Washington Post column to argue that Egypt’s provisional government does not deserve U.S. support. He begins:

One wonders how much further the United States will allow itself to be dragged down into the deepening abyss that is today’s Egypt. Those in the Obama administration and Congress who favor continued U.S. military aid to the dictatorship in Cairo insist that although such aid may run counter to American ideals, it does serve American interests. I would argue the contrary, that American interests are being harmed every day that support continues.

Far from aiding the United States in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists. Whatever one thought of the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and there was much to criticize, it came to office by fair and legitimate electoral means, just as U.S. policy had demanded, and it was headed toward a second election that it probably would have lost.

Alas, while his argument is powerful, it is also based on several faulty assumptions. Underlying his argument is the assumption that the motivation for terrorism lies in grievance, not ideology. That may be comforting to many diplomats because it leads to the idea that if diplomats only address those grievances, terrorism will fade away. However, it completely ignores the ideological component of Islamist terrorism fully embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a topic which I touched upon for this COMMENTARY article a couple years back.

To follow Kagan’s logic, and admittedly, that of many others whom I admire—that the United States should have simply let the Morsi government hang the Muslim Brotherhood with a rope its leadership provided—is optimistic, for it assumes that Morsi was committed to the electoral process. In this regard, Kagan is more optimistic than tens of millions of Egyptians listening to Morsi in Arabic, living under Muslim Brotherhood rule and, frankly, millions of one-time Morsi supporters who recognized that rhetoric aside, Morsi was unrepentant and unreformed.

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Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, dedicates his monthly Washington Post column to argue that Egypt’s provisional government does not deserve U.S. support. He begins:

One wonders how much further the United States will allow itself to be dragged down into the deepening abyss that is today’s Egypt. Those in the Obama administration and Congress who favor continued U.S. military aid to the dictatorship in Cairo insist that although such aid may run counter to American ideals, it does serve American interests. I would argue the contrary, that American interests are being harmed every day that support continues.

Far from aiding the United States in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists. Whatever one thought of the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and there was much to criticize, it came to office by fair and legitimate electoral means, just as U.S. policy had demanded, and it was headed toward a second election that it probably would have lost.

Alas, while his argument is powerful, it is also based on several faulty assumptions. Underlying his argument is the assumption that the motivation for terrorism lies in grievance, not ideology. That may be comforting to many diplomats because it leads to the idea that if diplomats only address those grievances, terrorism will fade away. However, it completely ignores the ideological component of Islamist terrorism fully embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a topic which I touched upon for this COMMENTARY article a couple years back.

To follow Kagan’s logic, and admittedly, that of many others whom I admire—that the United States should have simply let the Morsi government hang the Muslim Brotherhood with a rope its leadership provided—is optimistic, for it assumes that Morsi was committed to the electoral process. In this regard, Kagan is more optimistic than tens of millions of Egyptians listening to Morsi in Arabic, living under Muslim Brotherhood rule and, frankly, millions of one-time Morsi supporters who recognized that rhetoric aside, Morsi was unrepentant and unreformed.

If the Muslim Brotherhood would have held elections under the narrow and bigoted constitution they rammed through, they likely would not have entertained a wider stable of candidates than those able to run in the Islamic Republic of Iran after that theocracy’s unelected Guardian Council got through with its vetting. It is true that the Egyptian counter-revolution rejected the established electoral calendar, much as did almost every Arab Spring uprising in the first place, revolutions that Kagan (and I) both embraced.

Nor does the “product of society” argument hold much water. To imply as, unfortunately Kagan does, that it is understandable that some Egyptians will turn to terrorism as a result of last summer’s events is to accept the same logic that al-Qaeda’s terror attacks on 9/11 were somehow the understandable backlash of American foreign policy. When terrorists set off bombs in Cairo, Alexandria, or Asyut, there simply is no legitimate excuse, ever. Period.

The Egyptian generals are no saints, but they have moved forward with the electoral process. The jury is out about how genuine the roadmap to democracy is, but it is essential not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. True, Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will probably win, but he is also probably the most popular politician in Egypt right now. Hopefully, he will recognize the mistakes that led to the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak in the first place, and not make the same compromises with crony capitalists and corrupt generals.

U.S. interests are well-served by engagement with the Egyptian leadership during the current transition and into the future. Support should not be blind, but it is essential to recognize that the best chance to encourage real and lasting democratic reform comes only when the Muslim Brotherhood—a group as antithetical to democracy as the terrorist movements it has spawned—is defeated. Just as military analysts preached the importance of stability and security in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to enable those countries to move forward, so it is true also with Egypt. It is ironic—and inconsistent—for those cheerleading security in some countries to treat it with such disdain in others.

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Will Egypt’s Elections Be Free and Fair?

After the July 2013 uprising, coup, or correction in Egypt—the debate over the terminology, while relevant to U.S. law regarding foreign assistance, can nonetheless be distracting to the broader conversation—the Egyptian military promised a quick transition back to civilian rule, a new constitutional order, and elections.

The Egyptian military has been true to its word in reality, even if Western policymakers debate the spirit of its moves. After the Egyptian military arrested former President Mohamed Morsi and ousted his government, it did appoint civilian place-keepers—Adly Mansour as president, for example, and Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister (Beblawi resigned in February). Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi might be the paramount power and he could very well be the next president, but he did not assume all power. That said, there is plenty of evidence upon which those who see Sisi’s ambitions more cynically can grasp.

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After the July 2013 uprising, coup, or correction in Egypt—the debate over the terminology, while relevant to U.S. law regarding foreign assistance, can nonetheless be distracting to the broader conversation—the Egyptian military promised a quick transition back to civilian rule, a new constitutional order, and elections.

The Egyptian military has been true to its word in reality, even if Western policymakers debate the spirit of its moves. After the Egyptian military arrested former President Mohamed Morsi and ousted his government, it did appoint civilian place-keepers—Adly Mansour as president, for example, and Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister (Beblawi resigned in February). Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi might be the paramount power and he could very well be the next president, but he did not assume all power. That said, there is plenty of evidence upon which those who see Sisi’s ambitions more cynically can grasp.

Sisi did, however, keep his word and return Egypt to a constitutional order, scrapping the constitution that Morsi pushed through that would have taken women back decades and entrenched Islamism beyond its electoral mandate. Critics, however, argued that the drafting of the new constitution was not inclusive enough. That was not entirely the interim government’s fault: With the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to reject the post-Morsi order rather than participate in it, there was little choice the new government had to move forward other than scrap the drafting of a new constitution; fortunately, they chose to push forward despite the Brotherhood’s attempts to delegitimize the new constitution.

The next step is elections. U.S. policymakers should certainly recognize by now after its democracy promotion experience of the Bush and Obama years that elections do not make a democracy. Nor are all elections free and fair. While many critics of the Egyptian government effectively want to move back to the pre-July order and allow the Muslim Brotherhood to hang itself with a rope of its owning making, that sentiment discounts the fact that Morsi and the Brotherhood did not seem to be as committed to democratic checks and balances once they entered office and consolidated control, and so may never have allowed the public to try them at the ballot box. Regardless, it is simply impossible to go back to the past. The question then becomes how to push ahead into the future. It would be self-defeating to call for democratization but denounce any attempt at a new election. At the same time, there is no reason to take the Egyptian government at its word when it says that it wants free and fair elections.

That is why last week’s announcement by the Egyptian government that they will allow not only outside observation of the May 26-27 elections, but credible outside observation, is good sign. Allowing the European Union to send observers is probably the best possible choice. Neither the National Democratic Institute nor the International Republican Institute would be keen let alone welcome to send observers after the Egyptian military had scapegoated them against the backdrop of the initial Arab Spring protests. Nor is the Carter Center credible, given President Jimmy Carter’s outspoken and seemingly unbalanced support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is a lot of anger on all sides relating to the situation in Egypt. No one is satisfied. Rather than nihilistically condemn Egypt to limbo because of anger over the events of last July, however, it is important to make the most of the current situation, and push Egypt to the reforms it so desperately needs to make so that the next president doesn’t simply engage in the same corruption and crony capitalism that led to anger boiling over in 2011. Let us hope that the European Union monitors will observe Egypt’s elections both in the long and short term, and that the Egyptian government will continue to have the self-confidence to embrace transparency as it moves forward. If the authorities in Cairo are showing good faith, that should be reciprocated.

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Will Britain Outlaw the Brotherhood?

Following last year’s ousting of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, it appears that several among its leadership may have simply moved their operations to London so as to escape the crackdown in Cairo. There it appears these leaders convened to strategize the movement’s response to their overthrow. In many respects it is remarkable that this Islamist organization had not already been outlawed. Yet, no doubt alarmed by the way in which London is being turned into the seat of the Muslim Brotherhood government in exile, Downing Street has now ordered an urgent investigation into the group’s ideology and operations, apparently in preparation for implementing a ban against the Brotherhood’s presence in the UK. 

Part of the impetus for this move by the British government comes in the wake of a Muslim Brotherhood-linked terror attack on a tourist bus in the Sinai peninsular. The concern here is that this may be yet another terror attack planned from British soil. As such Prime Minister David Cameron has instructed an enquiry into the “philosophy and activities” of the group so as to ascertain whether the group represents a security threat. Britain’s domestic intelligence service MI5 will be tasked with investigating a number of senior Brotherhood figures currently residing in Britain, while MI6, the country’s foreign intelligence agency will follow up on the group’s involvement in launching terror activities beyond Britain’s shores.

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Following last year’s ousting of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, it appears that several among its leadership may have simply moved their operations to London so as to escape the crackdown in Cairo. There it appears these leaders convened to strategize the movement’s response to their overthrow. In many respects it is remarkable that this Islamist organization had not already been outlawed. Yet, no doubt alarmed by the way in which London is being turned into the seat of the Muslim Brotherhood government in exile, Downing Street has now ordered an urgent investigation into the group’s ideology and operations, apparently in preparation for implementing a ban against the Brotherhood’s presence in the UK. 

Part of the impetus for this move by the British government comes in the wake of a Muslim Brotherhood-linked terror attack on a tourist bus in the Sinai peninsular. The concern here is that this may be yet another terror attack planned from British soil. As such Prime Minister David Cameron has instructed an enquiry into the “philosophy and activities” of the group so as to ascertain whether the group represents a security threat. Britain’s domestic intelligence service MI5 will be tasked with investigating a number of senior Brotherhood figures currently residing in Britain, while MI6, the country’s foreign intelligence agency will follow up on the group’s involvement in launching terror activities beyond Britain’s shores.

Britain’s capital first earned itself the epithet Londonistan back in the late 1990s, but since then successive governments were supposed to have taken action to prevent London from functioning as the Jihadi capital of Europe. Yet it now seems that an apartment in the leafy northwest London suburb of Cricklewood is being used as the operational headquarters of Muslim Brotherhood post the group’s overthrow in Egypt. Long before this had happened, commentators were complaining that in the rush to crackdown on al-Qaeda and in an effort to win friends an influence people in the Islamist world, the British establishment had sought to legitimate the Muslim Brotherhood and its associate organizations operating in the West. With the election of Morsi to Egypt’s presidency, the Obama administration set a precedent for “engagement” with Egypt’s new Islamist rulers.  

One interesting upshot of this probable move to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain is the matter of how it might impact upon Hamas-affiliated groups in the UK. Hamas is after all simply the Palestinian branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, yet unlike in the U.S. where Hamas is designated a foreign terrorist organization; in Britain it is only the military wing of Hamas that is proscribed. In the event that all manifestations of the Brotherhood are forbidden to operate in the UK, this may have implications for a number of Hamas-linked NGOs and Campaign groups based in London but who take their marching orders and funding from their Islamist overseers.

While it may be regrettable that the Muslim Brotherhood was not prohibited from operating in Britain decades ago, if this investigation is conducted adequately it is hard to imagine that Muslim Brotherhood leaders will be sojourning in unassuming Cricklewood for much longer.  

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What Next for Egyptian Islamists?

Cairo has an outsized role in Islamic history. Alongside Baghdad and Damascus, it has always served as a cultural, intellectual, and often political capital for the Arab world. Thanks in large part to Al-Azhar University, perhaps the most prestigious center of Sunni learning in the Islamic world, it has also been a center for religious thought. In the modern era, it was home for a time to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, an Iranian pan-Islamist thinker who called Cairo home, and later Muhammad Abduh, a nineteenth and early twentieth century Muslim reformer. In the twentieth century, Cairo was the home base of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement founded by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, which soon grew to become the preeminent Islamist movement challenging the established political order.  

The Muslim Brotherhood, seldom far beneath the surface, rose to prominence in the wake of the Arab Spring protests that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. But the movement was hardly the only Islamist group to seek political power, nor was it necessarily a monolith, although Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to run it as one.

Since the July 2013 coup, the Egyptian government has moved to delegitimize the Muslim Brotherhood, and drive its remnants underground, a policy which, quite frankly, I support. Still, it’s important to embark on any such policy with eyes wide open. While I believe the interim Egyptian government is, frankly, a better match for U.S. national security than Morsi’s government, and while I also believe Egypt is more likely to achieve a more democratic order from the current situation than from when the Muslim Brotherhood was in control, it would be foolish to consider the current Egyptian government democratic and fully committed to the rule of law. What goes on inside Egyptian prisons remains atrocious, and the Egyptian military remains as involved in the crony capitalist order as it was in the decades before the Arab Spring.

In assessing Egyptian Islamism in the wake of the coup, the Center for American Progress has just published an excellent new study that maps out the current state of Egypt’s Islamist movements. Based on a series of recent interviews, they depict a Brotherhood still in disarray amidst the new government’s crackdown:

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Cairo has an outsized role in Islamic history. Alongside Baghdad and Damascus, it has always served as a cultural, intellectual, and often political capital for the Arab world. Thanks in large part to Al-Azhar University, perhaps the most prestigious center of Sunni learning in the Islamic world, it has also been a center for religious thought. In the modern era, it was home for a time to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, an Iranian pan-Islamist thinker who called Cairo home, and later Muhammad Abduh, a nineteenth and early twentieth century Muslim reformer. In the twentieth century, Cairo was the home base of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement founded by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, which soon grew to become the preeminent Islamist movement challenging the established political order.  

The Muslim Brotherhood, seldom far beneath the surface, rose to prominence in the wake of the Arab Spring protests that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. But the movement was hardly the only Islamist group to seek political power, nor was it necessarily a monolith, although Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to run it as one.

Since the July 2013 coup, the Egyptian government has moved to delegitimize the Muslim Brotherhood, and drive its remnants underground, a policy which, quite frankly, I support. Still, it’s important to embark on any such policy with eyes wide open. While I believe the interim Egyptian government is, frankly, a better match for U.S. national security than Morsi’s government, and while I also believe Egypt is more likely to achieve a more democratic order from the current situation than from when the Muslim Brotherhood was in control, it would be foolish to consider the current Egyptian government democratic and fully committed to the rule of law. What goes on inside Egyptian prisons remains atrocious, and the Egyptian military remains as involved in the crony capitalist order as it was in the decades before the Arab Spring.

In assessing Egyptian Islamism in the wake of the coup, the Center for American Progress has just published an excellent new study that maps out the current state of Egypt’s Islamist movements. Based on a series of recent interviews, they depict a Brotherhood still in disarray amidst the new government’s crackdown:

These Brothers remain steadfast in the face of state repression. Their commitment to continued street mobilization is firm, and they help organize and fund the protests to bring pressure on the interim government. While they express concern over the growing tendency by some youth in their ranks to engage in violence, they are increasingly unlikely to condemn the use of violence by protestors considered to be acting in self-defense. But the impact of the crackdown is palpable. In speaking with members up the chain of command and across Cairo and Alexandria, differing opinions emerged on key issues and core challenges before the Brotherhood. While they are shoulder to shoulder in skirmishing with the security forces, their views diverge as they look back over Morsi’s tenure and forward to matters of politics and reconciliation. At times, this dissonance borders on incoherence and draws into question their ability to maintain unity of purpose.

Nor is there consensus about a way forward for those who have fled into exile:

Further complicating the group’s cohesiveness is the growing number of Brotherhood leaders and members outside Egypt that try to influence the actions and strategy of the group. Many of these leaders have sought shelter in Qatar and Turkey, while others have set up shop in London. The largely uncoordinated and seemingly haphazard efforts have ranged from dead-on-arrival calls to form a government in exile to more ambitious designs to take the group’s fight to the International Criminal Court whose governing Rome Statute was blocked from ratification by the group when it was in power.

While many young Egyptians gave the Brotherhood a shot but abandoned it when they saw the group’s rhetoric of democracy did not match the reality of its internal decision-making culture, other young Egyptians drew opposite conclusions, and determined that the problem was that the Brotherhood wasn’t hardcore enough:

These activists resent the senior Brotherhood leadership, whom they believe abandoned core Islamist principles, and are actively seeking to convince the rank and file of the necessity to resort to violence… These youth have come to reject the Egyptian state and believe that the country can progress only if the traditional centers of power—the military, the intelligence, the police, bureaucracy, and business networks—are taken apart rather than co-opted.

As valuable is the report’s survey of Egypt’s other Islamists: the Salafi Da’wa and the Nour Party, the Watan Party, as well as other Salafi splinter groups and factions.

While the Muslim Brotherhood seeks “to kill the state through a thousand cuts,” hoping that the new government’s brutal reaction will turn public opinion against it, the Salafi Da’wa has aligned itself with the state and against the Brotherhood. While this weakens the Brotherhood somewhat, it also suggests that the post-Brotherhood order will not be as secular as many in the West imagine. Whatever the tactical political maneuvering of their leaders, some within the Salafi Da’wa and Nour Party may ultimately put religion above politics. This might encourage further radicalization, especially among the youth who face the same problems as before the Arab Spring.

While I disagree with some of the report’s recommendations—promoting political dialogue sounds good, but in a battle of absolutist ideologies, it seldom does any good—“Fragmenting Under Pressure,” is probably the best platform from which to have a real debate about a pro-active rather than reactive U.S. policy toward Egypt, and is certainly worth a read not only by the Center for American Progress’s normal political allies on the left, but also by any serious political analyst on the right as well, for quality should never be defined by politics.

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The Unfairly Maligned Francis Fukuyama

A common theme of the current crisis in Ukraine, as well as other major foreign-policy challenges to the American-led global order, is that it represents the “return of history.” It’s a not-so-subtle rebuke not only to apparently naïve Western statesmen but to Francis Fukuyama, the justly distinguished political scientist who, twenty-five years ago, wrote one of the most famous political science essays of the 20th century.

Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?” in 1989, as the revolutionary spirit in Europe gained the upper hand over Soviet tyranny. “In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history,” Fukuyama wrote. A couple of paragraphs later came the grand thesis: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Thus did Fukuyama’s thesis get boiled down to a romantic flight from reality, the disintegration of which has supposedly struck a blow for realism and against what Samuel Huntington termed the trend of “endism.” The latest to take what has become an obligatory swipe at Fukuyama came from Paul Berman, in a piece on the Ukraine crisis being an extension of 1989, a thesis earlier espoused by George Will. Berman writes of the aftermath of the Orange Revolution:

It felt as if 1989’s revolutions had revealed the secret of world history, as per Hegel (whose most imaginative modern disciple proved to be Francis Fukuyama). And human nature had discovered its proper political expression, and the worldwide liberal future had become, for better and for worse, visible on the horizon. Which was delusionary.

When you use a phrase like the “end of history,” you create an index-card mnemonic for your theory, as Fukuyama should have known (and certainly knows now). But many of these criticisms miss the mark, and in important ways, Fukuyama has been vindicated, rather than discredited, by recent events. This is not to claim that Fukuyama was right on every count. But his argument was built around the realization of Western liberalism’s superiority as a political system, not around the acceptance of such by those opposed to Western liberalism. He writes:

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A common theme of the current crisis in Ukraine, as well as other major foreign-policy challenges to the American-led global order, is that it represents the “return of history.” It’s a not-so-subtle rebuke not only to apparently naïve Western statesmen but to Francis Fukuyama, the justly distinguished political scientist who, twenty-five years ago, wrote one of the most famous political science essays of the 20th century.

Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?” in 1989, as the revolutionary spirit in Europe gained the upper hand over Soviet tyranny. “In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history,” Fukuyama wrote. A couple of paragraphs later came the grand thesis: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Thus did Fukuyama’s thesis get boiled down to a romantic flight from reality, the disintegration of which has supposedly struck a blow for realism and against what Samuel Huntington termed the trend of “endism.” The latest to take what has become an obligatory swipe at Fukuyama came from Paul Berman, in a piece on the Ukraine crisis being an extension of 1989, a thesis earlier espoused by George Will. Berman writes of the aftermath of the Orange Revolution:

It felt as if 1989’s revolutions had revealed the secret of world history, as per Hegel (whose most imaginative modern disciple proved to be Francis Fukuyama). And human nature had discovered its proper political expression, and the worldwide liberal future had become, for better and for worse, visible on the horizon. Which was delusionary.

When you use a phrase like the “end of history,” you create an index-card mnemonic for your theory, as Fukuyama should have known (and certainly knows now). But many of these criticisms miss the mark, and in important ways, Fukuyama has been vindicated, rather than discredited, by recent events. This is not to claim that Fukuyama was right on every count. But his argument was built around the realization of Western liberalism’s superiority as a political system, not around the acceptance of such by those opposed to Western liberalism. He writes:

Have we in fact reached the end of history? Are there, in other words, any fundamental “contradictions” in human life that cannot be resolved in the context of modern liberalism, that would be resolvable by an alternative political-economic structure?

He reviews the ideological challengers, and concludes (correctly) that they have been defeated in the battle of ideas, though he–like a great many observers in 1989–underestimates the expansionist appeal of Islamism. And he makes a point of saying that “This does not by any means imply the end of international conflict per se.” Indeed, Fukuyama expected states put at risk by this development to fight it tooth and nail, with an explicit desire “to get history started once again.”

The uprising in Ukraine followed by the Russian invasion; the Arab Spring followed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s authoritarianism in Egypt which was followed by a military coup to reestablish secular authoritarianism; and other such seesaw struggles are fully consistent with Fukuyama’s argument. The challenge comes in the fact that it’s far from clear that these “revolutionaries” desire Western liberalism. It’s debatable, however, whether they must want liberalism for the “end of history” to be asserting itself, or if it’s enough that the failure of the alternatives to liberalism which they are overthrowing provides the necessary consistency with the thesis.

The certainty with which the intelligentsia treat their understanding of Fukuyama’s thesis now is in stark contrast with the utter confusion and chaos that greeted the original essay. The New York Times published a piece in October 1989 hilariously headlined “What Is Fukuyama Saying? And To Whom Is He Saying It?” The Times continued:

”Controversial” didn’t begin to cover the case. Unlike that other recent philosophical cause celebre, Allan Bloom’s ”The Closing of the American Mind,” Fukuyama’s essay was the work of a representative from what is often referred to in academic circles as the real world. This was no professor, according to the contributor’s note that ran in the magazine, but the ”deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff.”

“This was no professor,” the Times exclaims, indicating that Fukuyama was an ostensibly serious person. One wonders how American academia felt about that sentence. So the Times went to Fukuyama’s office to find out just who this non-professor was. What followed was a bizarrely and condescendingly anthropological study of Fukuyama, as if the very idea of a person in government–or at least in a Republican government–having an original idea was impossible to compute. (Such skepticism toward government from the Times is sorely missed.)

Although it’s only fair to judge Fukuyama’s essay on its own terms, it’s worth noting that Fukuyama developed his work on political theory in the ensuing quarter-century, with impressive results. His most recent book is “The Origins of Political Order,” easily one of the most significant works of political science in years. In Origins, he comes to a conclusion that can offer a kind of addendum to his previous championing of liberal democracy.

He describes three categories of political institutions: the state, the rule of law, and accountable government. “A successful modern liberal democracy combines all three sets of institutions in a stable balance,” he writes. This is a crucial distinction: Fukuyama is not saying “one man, one vote” popular democracy is the primary yardstick of political development, but emphasizes accountability, which requires a degree of the consent of the governed. Fukuyama’s work has much of relevance to say about the current pattern of global political disorder, and those dismissing him as a false prophet of endism would do well to reconsider.

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Release Apache Helicopters to Egypt

Who would have thought that, three years after the Arab Spring uprisings, the only two countries friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood would have been U.S. ‘allies’ Qatar and Turkey? In its year in power in Egypt, the only thing the Muslim Brotherhood accomplished was to turn the vast majority of the Egyptian people against it. Whereas many analysts and, apparently, the entirety of the State Department and White House, took the Muslim Brotherhood at its word, Muhammad Morsi’s rule showed that any chance within the Brotherhood was rhetorical only but that its intolerant policies and support of terror remained unchanged. Not only did the Brotherhood support and encourage Hamas terrorism emanating from the Gaza Strip, but it also empowered Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. No one should lament the Brotherhood’s fall after mass popular protests topped off by a military coup.

The Egyptian military are no angels but their year in the shadows successfully demonstrated to the Egyptian public more than any rhetoric could what would happen if the Muslim Brotherhood got its way. Now that the Brotherhood has been driven underground, the Egyptian government has once again taken up the anti-terror fight. Given what is at stake and so long as Egypt’s transition to elections and a new constitutional order continues apace, it is imperative the United States support them.

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Who would have thought that, three years after the Arab Spring uprisings, the only two countries friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood would have been U.S. ‘allies’ Qatar and Turkey? In its year in power in Egypt, the only thing the Muslim Brotherhood accomplished was to turn the vast majority of the Egyptian people against it. Whereas many analysts and, apparently, the entirety of the State Department and White House, took the Muslim Brotherhood at its word, Muhammad Morsi’s rule showed that any chance within the Brotherhood was rhetorical only but that its intolerant policies and support of terror remained unchanged. Not only did the Brotherhood support and encourage Hamas terrorism emanating from the Gaza Strip, but it also empowered Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. No one should lament the Brotherhood’s fall after mass popular protests topped off by a military coup.

The Egyptian military are no angels but their year in the shadows successfully demonstrated to the Egyptian public more than any rhetoric could what would happen if the Muslim Brotherhood got its way. Now that the Brotherhood has been driven underground, the Egyptian government has once again taken up the anti-terror fight. Given what is at stake and so long as Egypt’s transition to elections and a new constitutional order continues apace, it is imperative the United States support them.

Such was the recommendation by General Lloyd Austin last week before the House Armed Services Committee, in the following exchange with Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican representing Oklahoma:

SENATOR INHOFE: “OK, and I appreciate that, and I agree with that. And there’s a lot of misunderstanding, back when we had the argument about the Apache helicopters. And I — I feel that — but I’ll ask you. From a military perspective, would you — would the resumption of the delivery of the Apache helicopters assist the Egyptians in their efforts to fight terrorists?”

GENERAL LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: “First, sir, I’ll say that I support the president’s policy. But from a military perspective, just looking at what the Egyptians have done in the Sinai, and the equipment that they are using — the Apache has been very instrumental in their efforts there.”

INHOFE: “Is that yes?”

AUSTIN: “That’s a yes, sir.”

The Obama administration had suspended the delivery of those helicopters. Unfortunately, while it might be satisfying on the part of some diplomats to cancel the transfer of the Apaches to Egypt such symbolic action should not come at the expense of regional security and, indeed, when it comes to Al Qaeda in the Sinai that is exactly what is at stake.

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Inside the UAE’s Muslim Brotherhood

I have written a number of pieces recently examining the efforts of the self-described human-rights organization Alkarama (whose head the U.S. Treasury Department designated as a terror financier) to advance the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood inside the United Arab Emirates.

The Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Report, a one-stop shop on articles and analysis relating to the Muslim Brotherhood (and which regularly breaks news days ahead of other press outlets, such as President Obama’s reception of Anas Altikriti, the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood figure), flags this article from the United Arab Emirates’ Gulf News which claims the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in the United Arab Emirates is in decline.

The most interesting element in the article revolves around the Muslim Brotherhood’s recruitment and structure in the region:

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I have written a number of pieces recently examining the efforts of the self-described human-rights organization Alkarama (whose head the U.S. Treasury Department designated as a terror financier) to advance the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood inside the United Arab Emirates.

The Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Report, a one-stop shop on articles and analysis relating to the Muslim Brotherhood (and which regularly breaks news days ahead of other press outlets, such as President Obama’s reception of Anas Altikriti, the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood figure), flags this article from the United Arab Emirates’ Gulf News which claims the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in the United Arab Emirates is in decline.

The most interesting element in the article revolves around the Muslim Brotherhood’s recruitment and structure in the region:

Most members of the movement are recruited during high school or college years and, in many cases, serve in top administrative positions within the Brotherhood’s nationwide structure before being promoted to the Guidance Office, the organization’s top executive authority. They also could be nominated for political office to ensure leaders have all been vetted over the course of decades in their willingness to comply with the internal Shura committee’s decisions, said Tharwat  Al Kherbawi, a  lawyer who has written memoirs exposing the secrets of the Brotherhood after he left the movement, addressing a recent symposium titled ‘Challenges and threats posed by the Muslim Brotherhood to UAE and countries of the Region.’

“Emirati members of the Muslim Brotherhood take a proxy allegiance oath, where these members swear allegiance before another veteran leader in the UAE, who in turn swears allegiance before the Supreme Guide in Cairo,” said Al Kherbawi, who is among the most vocal critics of the organization. He said that young initiates were taught that joining the movement was a religious obligation, like prayer, and that the supreme guide is above any mistakes. “These novices are raised on obedience and allegiance to the supreme guide, accepting no critique of him or his acts. They are taught to regard the movement as their home and that standing to the national anthem of their country is polytheism,” he added.

The notion of recruitment in schools, hierarchy, and demands for strict obedience seem consistent from country to country. Indeed, the strict hierarchy and autocratic internal political culture are what repelled so many young Egyptians who once saw the Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to the corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak.

While the transnational nature of the movement is well-known to those familiar with the Brotherhood, the notion of a supreme guide with international reach also depicts the Muslim Brotherhood as in many ways the Sunni equivalent of the political and religious structure which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sought to establish inside Iran.

Recognizing this fact has implications for U.S. policy. First, blanket funding of schools in the region, whether directly or through United Nations organizations, should cease unless those schools can certify they are not beds for Muslim Brotherhood recruitment (especially as teachers often identify targets for recruitment). Second, engaging national Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, for example, as diplomats or NGOs work with political parties in each country, is naive and akin to engaging Hezbollah without recognizing that organization’s ties to Iran. Lastly, the decline of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE suggests that investigating Brotherhood organizations with the aim of driving them underground, if not eradicating them, can work.

That does not mean cheerleading repression, but rather recognizing that not all opposition is legitimate or desirable. There are many flavors of political opposition that do not act as transnational or religious insurgencies. Only those political oppositions that accept national sovereignty, seek tolerance and equality under the law for all citizens regardless of religion, and practice democracy within their own political hierarchies should be engaged and encouraged by the U.S. government.

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Does Obama Know What the Muslim Brotherhood Wants?

Within the United States, the debate about the character of the Muslim Brotherhood and the proper U.S. policy toward the group remains strong. Mohamed Morsi was Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and the coup against him both engenders sympathy in some policy circles and creates a conundrum for those who hope for greater democratization in the region.

With the exception of Qatar, no such doubt exists among the leadership of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is one thing for officials in these states to describe the Muslim Brotherhood as an unrepentant terrorist group; after all, the Brotherhood’s platform runs in direct contradiction to the policies of the Gulf monarchies. What has very much surprised me, however, is the vehemence with which most liberals and advocates for democracy and progressivism in this corner of the Arab world, some of whom had previously had an open mind with regard to the movement, now condemn the Brotherhood.

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Within the United States, the debate about the character of the Muslim Brotherhood and the proper U.S. policy toward the group remains strong. Mohamed Morsi was Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and the coup against him both engenders sympathy in some policy circles and creates a conundrum for those who hope for greater democratization in the region.

With the exception of Qatar, no such doubt exists among the leadership of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is one thing for officials in these states to describe the Muslim Brotherhood as an unrepentant terrorist group; after all, the Brotherhood’s platform runs in direct contradiction to the policies of the Gulf monarchies. What has very much surprised me, however, is the vehemence with which most liberals and advocates for democracy and progressivism in this corner of the Arab world, some of whom had previously had an open mind with regard to the movement, now condemn the Brotherhood.

While the Brotherhood spoke well about democracy and charmed diplomats, reporters, and Egyptians alike who were sick of the corruption that permeated the Mubarak regime, they quickly showed that they had not evolved, either in ideology or in structure. While the Brotherhood is deeply organized, it was unable to shed its internal authoritarianism and its strict embrace of hierarchy and seniority. Young adherents may have hoped to voice their concerns, but what they found was that they were expected to follow the Brotherhood’s orders without question or debate. To do otherwise would result in discipline, expulsion, or worse.

Many regional liberals have engaged their Egyptian counterparts and asked them why they have changed their minds on outreach to and inclusion for the post-coup Brotherhood and thrown their support unreservedly behind Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The deciding factor for many liberals has been asking their Muslim Brotherhood friends what exactly they want. Their answers—which, of course, I am only hearing secondhand—make clear that the Brotherhood will neither compromise on Morsi’s return nor actualizing the slogan, “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” The group sees terrorism not as anathema, but the same as its embrace of democracy—as tactic to achieve an end goal of power.

This does not mean Sisi is a savior; indeed, he could be quite dangerous. It is unclear whether he recognizes that the reason for such popular anger toward President Hosni Mubarak was the corruption in which not only Mubarak but also so many senior military officers engaged. If Sisi simply returns to business as normal now that the Egyptian public has recognized the Brotherhood’s true face, then he opens the door for either a Brotherhood comeback, perhaps under a leadership more skilled than Morsi, or a broader, more destructive rebellion.

How frustrating it is for Arab liberals to see Obama’s continued flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood, even as that group dismisses talk of tolerance and re-embraces terror as the tactic of choice. Over at the Washington Free Beacon, Adam Kredo broke the story that President Barack Obama welcomed Anas Altikriti, senior member of the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood, into the White House. Let us hope that Obama asked Altikriti what exactly he and the Muslim Brotherhood want. If he did so, he should be shocked. Here’s a video (skip ahead to around minute 15) in which Altikriti engages in the crudest sectarianism, condemning the army for including Shi’ites at a Brotherhood rally in Great Britain.

While the White House spokesman told Kredo “that Altikriti was brought to the meeting to serve as a translator for al-Nujaifi,” this is only half-right: Altikriti was both translator and Iraqi parliamentary speaker Usama Nujaifi’s advisor. He was not a functionary, but rather the chief aide. Just as when Obama posed with a terrorist leader at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, it seems that Obama’s National Security Council and his handlers are again neglecting to conduct the most basic due diligence. Sectarianism is poison. Rather than tolerate it from either Sunnis or Shi’ites, Obama should deny its crudest instigators the White House as a platform. Instead, he might want to engage more fully with those who dismiss such sentiments and seek a more progressive future in which politicians promote tolerance and embrace accountability rather than ridicule such sentiments.

 

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History, Democracy, and Egypt’s Revolution

In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

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In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

On February 5, 2011, CNN featured the Egyptian-American leftist Mona Eltahawy and Alan Dershowitz arguing over Egypt’s future. Eltahawy was filled with righteous anger and a sense of her own superior perspective on the issue. She also turned out to be wrong on everything, and Dershowitz right. That in itself isn’t too surprising; Eltahawy flaunts her hostility to Western liberalism, which often leads her down the path of spite and illogic when she claims to know better. But it was Dershowitz’s caution that was notable: he understood from the outset that the worst outcome for Egypt would be a replica of Hamas’s rise next door in Gaza, when the Islamist terrorist group won an election and immediately rolled back any scrap of democracy to secure its tyrannical rule.

Dershowitz warned that the strongest party in the emerging Egyptian power vacuum was the Muslim Brotherhood, and that a Brotherhood election victory could actually be a setback for democracy in Egypt. Of course he was obviously correct even then, but Eltahawy angrily shot back that Dershowitz was a hypocrite, and the following discussion ensued:

ELTAHAWY: You know, it’s interesting to hear Alan used the word democracy because that’s exactly what Egypt is working on right now. These millions of Egyptians who have been on the streets for the past 12 days want to be democratic.

So it’s very hypocritical to describe Israel as a democracy and be alarmist about what’s happening in Egypt because surely you and everyone in Israel should be happy that your neighbor wants to be a democracy and democratic neighbors are happy.

DERSHOWITZ: If it’s a real democracy, not a Hamas-type democracy.

ELTAHAWY: You know, you can’t label democracy. Democracy is the people choosing the government they want and what you’re doing is being alarmist. This is not about Muslim Brotherhood. This is about Egyptians determining their future without anyone else’s interference.

MALVEAUX: David, you want to respond –

DERSHOWITZ: The people chose Adolf Hitler in 1932 by democratic means and the people would probably have chosen Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by democratic means. So democracy has to be both structural that is elections, but also functional. If you elect people who then take away all the rights and make women wear Burqas and deny people the right of –

ELTAHAWY: Wait, wait, wait. Who said — this is utter nonsense. This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood and burqas. You’re talking nonsense.

DERSHOWITZ: You’re just wrong. You’re just wrong. Of course, it has everything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.

I remembered the debate at the time because it was so typical of the two sides of this argument: Eltahawy’s ignorance (“you can’t label democracy”; “This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood”) and Dershowitz’s historical awareness. It turned out that past was prologue, in Egypt as elsewhere.

The Egyptian army’s displacement of the Brotherhood government was indeed a military coup. But the Brotherhood government not only wasn’t a democracy; it actually went a long way toward discrediting democracy in the region precisely because of the principle McFaul espoused with regard to Russia. Westerners may be criticized for a bias toward democracy abroad, but in some cases–as with Egypt–they are more realistic about the nature of democracy than they are usually given credit for.

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What’s the Alternative in Egypt?

Today’s announcement that Egypt’s ruling council of military leaders has given its stamp of approval to General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s intention to run for president was an ominous sign that the country had come full circle in the last three years. The Arab Spring protests that began in 2011 toppled the military dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for three decades. But after their brief experiment with democracy that resulted in a brush with an Islamist dictatorship led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals and perhaps even a majority of Egyptians aren’t taking any chances. With the Brotherhood crushed by a military crackdown, el-Sisi’s “electoral” victory is a certainty. After the hopes that the Arab Spring raised and all the suffering and sacrifices made over the course of two protest movements—one to oust Mubarak and another, even larger, to bring down Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government—it now appears to have all been for naught.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the military government’s intolerance of any dissent—whether from the Islamists or liberals—is deeply worrisome. As Max writes, terrorists operating from Gaza could exploit the developing chaos. The increase in violence throughout Egypt, as well as the persistence of the Wild West atmosphere in the Sinai where jihadi groups are still operating as they did during the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, raises serious doubts about the capacity of the military to restore stability. But acknowledging these facts doesn’t mean that the U.S. should go even further than the Obama administration has already gone in distancing itself from the Egyptian government.

The key question to ask about America’s policy toward Egypt isn’t whether the U.S. approves of military rule; we don’t. But the question becomes whether a decision to further restrict aid to the military would make matters even worse, both for the Egyptians as well as for Israel. The answer to these questions is clear. There is no alternative to the military that would not be far worse for Egypt and U.S. interests, and any American move to undermine el-Sisi would only increase the chances of a disaster there.

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Today’s announcement that Egypt’s ruling council of military leaders has given its stamp of approval to General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s intention to run for president was an ominous sign that the country had come full circle in the last three years. The Arab Spring protests that began in 2011 toppled the military dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for three decades. But after their brief experiment with democracy that resulted in a brush with an Islamist dictatorship led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals and perhaps even a majority of Egyptians aren’t taking any chances. With the Brotherhood crushed by a military crackdown, el-Sisi’s “electoral” victory is a certainty. After the hopes that the Arab Spring raised and all the suffering and sacrifices made over the course of two protest movements—one to oust Mubarak and another, even larger, to bring down Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government—it now appears to have all been for naught.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the military government’s intolerance of any dissent—whether from the Islamists or liberals—is deeply worrisome. As Max writes, terrorists operating from Gaza could exploit the developing chaos. The increase in violence throughout Egypt, as well as the persistence of the Wild West atmosphere in the Sinai where jihadi groups are still operating as they did during the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, raises serious doubts about the capacity of the military to restore stability. But acknowledging these facts doesn’t mean that the U.S. should go even further than the Obama administration has already gone in distancing itself from the Egyptian government.

The key question to ask about America’s policy toward Egypt isn’t whether the U.S. approves of military rule; we don’t. But the question becomes whether a decision to further restrict aid to the military would make matters even worse, both for the Egyptians as well as for Israel. The answer to these questions is clear. There is no alternative to the military that would not be far worse for Egypt and U.S. interests, and any American move to undermine el-Sisi would only increase the chances of a disaster there.

While concerns about the situation in Egypt spiraling out of control are far from unrealistic, the situation there should not be mischaracterized. Any increase in violence should be deplored, but it’s far from clear that either the Brotherhood or terrorist elements that might be aligned with it or based in Hamas-ruled Gaza is capable of destabilizing the country, let alone toppling the military. The Brotherhood has been taken down not only by the ruthlessness of the military crackdown but by the realization on the part of the Egyptian people that Morsi’s Islamist government was a greater threat to their future than a return to a Mubarak-style authoritarian regime. Tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for Morsi’s overthrow and largely applauded when the military complied with their wishes.

They may not be cheering the military’s crackdown on liberal critics quite as enthusiastically. But as much as we may deplore this development, if there is anything Americans should have learned about Egypt and the Arab Spring in the past three years it is that the expectation that democracy was possible was an illusion. The choice was always between the military and the Brotherhood. Neither is palatable but those of us who, however briefly, held onto the hope that Egyptians could go down a path that might lead to genuine democracy must admit we were wrong.

That admission requires us to be both realistic about what is possible in Egypt and vigilant against any American measures that could exacerbate an already bad situation. In the past three years, the Obama administration has gone from one blunder to the next. First it championed Mubarak. Then it dumped him. Then it embraced the Brotherhood and warned the military not to interfere with its rule. It reluctantly accepted the military coup that ended that unfortunate chapter last summer, but has since cut back on aid to the military, further reducing U.S. influence in Cairo.

While chagrin at the turn of events in Egypt is understandable, it cannot be used as an excuse for any action that would weaken the military government at the expense of its Islamist foes. The administration as well as its critics who support the idea of the spread of democracy must understand that, among many bad options, the Egyptian military is the best.

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Egypt’s War on Dissent

The revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak is now three years old, and Egypt’s future seems less promising than ever.

General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the military commander, is preparing to run for president—and if he runs he will certainly win, becoming, in essence, a new Mubarak. The army has not only driven the Muslim Brotherhood from power, it has also declared war on all critics of the regime, whether Islamist or liberal. As the Guardian notes:

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace prize winner once billed as a potential president, is in exile. So too is Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose Facebook campaign against police thuggery brought many to Tahrir Square. Ahmed Maher, the activist whose 6 April movement helped drive anti-Mubarak dissent, is in jail along with the group’s co-founders, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel.

In the cell next door is Alaa Abd El Fattah, a renowned activist first jailed under Mubarak. Abd El Fattah returned from exile during the 2011 revolution to help build a new Egypt. Instead he was detained, first under the military dictatorship that followed Mubarak, then under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, and now under the de facto leadership of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

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The revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak is now three years old, and Egypt’s future seems less promising than ever.

General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the military commander, is preparing to run for president—and if he runs he will certainly win, becoming, in essence, a new Mubarak. The army has not only driven the Muslim Brotherhood from power, it has also declared war on all critics of the regime, whether Islamist or liberal. As the Guardian notes:

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace prize winner once billed as a potential president, is in exile. So too is Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose Facebook campaign against police thuggery brought many to Tahrir Square. Ahmed Maher, the activist whose 6 April movement helped drive anti-Mubarak dissent, is in jail along with the group’s co-founders, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel.

In the cell next door is Alaa Abd El Fattah, a renowned activist first jailed under Mubarak. Abd El Fattah returned from exile during the 2011 revolution to help build a new Egypt. Instead he was detained, first under the military dictatorship that followed Mubarak, then under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, and now under the de facto leadership of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

What happens when it’s impossible to express dissent peacefully? That becomes an open invitation for radicals to take matters into their own hands, and that is precisely what is happening in Egypt today. The latest news on this front is ominous, namely that militants in the Sinai shot down an Egyptian military helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, killing all five soldiers aboard. Such missiles, in the wrong hands, can be a threat not just to helicopters but to civilian aircraft, including those flying in and out of Israel. Meanwhile, on Friday, four bombs went off in Cairo, killing six people.

These are worrisome signs of what some of us have feared all along: By declaring war on dissent, Sisi risks driving his country into a full-blown civil war. At the very least the terrorist threat is increasing, and it is unlikely to stay confined to Egypt—not when there are such close links among jihadists operating in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. The situation got bad enough under the Muslim Brotherhood government, but there is little sign of improvement under the emerging military dictatorship whose ascension many Israelis understandably cheered. Sisi’s heavy-handed crackdown—undertaken by a corrupt and ineffective regime—unfortunately has the potential to spark a full-blown insurgency that will make current troubles seem benign by comparison.

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U.S. Should Support Egypt’s New Constitution

Egyptians have gone to the polls over recent days in order to cast their vote in a referendum with regard to a new constitution. According to the Voice of America:

​The vote comes six months after Egypt’s military toppled the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in July after large protests against him and his government. Initial reports show the new charter winning overwhelming approval of those who voted. Final vote counts from around the country scrolled across the screens of Egyptian satellite channels throughout the day, showing “yes” votes in most districts of between 90 and 98 percent. Many analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to boycott the referendum may explain the lack of a significant “no” vote.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the vote, turnout appears to be high. According to Egypt’s presidential spokesman:

Early indications point to the fact that Egyptians made history this week with a high level of participation in the vote on the draft Constitution. This is a wonderful day for Egypt, Egyptians and for democracy, despite the extraordinary circumstances. This vote represents a resounding rejection of terrorism and a clear endorsement of the roadmap to democracy, as well as economic development and stability.”

Many in Washington—among Obama administration officials, academic cheerleaders for the Muslim Brotherhood, and many traditional neoconservatives—are understandably quite hesitant to support Egypt’s transitional government going forward, and may be even more hesitant should Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi run for president. Whatever rhetorical hoops the Obama administration jumps through, the fact of the matter is that the Egyptian military staged a coup and overthrew Egypt’s first elected president.

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Egyptians have gone to the polls over recent days in order to cast their vote in a referendum with regard to a new constitution. According to the Voice of America:

​The vote comes six months after Egypt’s military toppled the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in July after large protests against him and his government. Initial reports show the new charter winning overwhelming approval of those who voted. Final vote counts from around the country scrolled across the screens of Egyptian satellite channels throughout the day, showing “yes” votes in most districts of between 90 and 98 percent. Many analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to boycott the referendum may explain the lack of a significant “no” vote.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the vote, turnout appears to be high. According to Egypt’s presidential spokesman:

Early indications point to the fact that Egyptians made history this week with a high level of participation in the vote on the draft Constitution. This is a wonderful day for Egypt, Egyptians and for democracy, despite the extraordinary circumstances. This vote represents a resounding rejection of terrorism and a clear endorsement of the roadmap to democracy, as well as economic development and stability.”

Many in Washington—among Obama administration officials, academic cheerleaders for the Muslim Brotherhood, and many traditional neoconservatives—are understandably quite hesitant to support Egypt’s transitional government going forward, and may be even more hesitant should Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi run for president. Whatever rhetorical hoops the Obama administration jumps through, the fact of the matter is that the Egyptian military staged a coup and overthrew Egypt’s first elected president.

That said, President Mohamed Morsi had ceased to be a democrat pretty much the second he took office. He had dispensed with any notion of a broad-based constitution, and moved to undermine separation of powers. A year ago November, be sought to effectively seize dictatorial powers for himself, placing the presidency above the judicial decisions (much like Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is doing now). It is important to recognize that the choice confronting advocates of democracy moving forward isn’t between democracy and el-Sisi, but rather between two imperfect scenarios.

The question then becomes, which provides a better path toward democracy? The Muslim Brotherhood does not. It uses democracy as a means to an end, but that end is not democratic. And while many American academics and journalists cringe at the Egyptian designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, one look at the group’s ideology, its cell structure, and its past and present actions suggest that the designation may very well be warranted. Just because a terrorist group has survived eight decades does not somehow launder its ideology or tactics.

The new constitution may not be perfect, but it is a real step forward over the constitution the Muslim Brotherhood sought to impose on the Egyptian public. Here is a fact sheet produced by the Egyptian Embassy in Washington on the document.

The danger with Sisi is that he will seek to replicate the worst tendencies of the Mubarak era. The Egyptian public, however, have shown that they have little tolerance with leaders who believe themselves above the people and not accountable to them. That was a lesson Hosni Mubarak learned the hard way, and it was a lesson that Morsi learned to his detriment.

The best path forward, therefore, is to support the interim process and new constitution and maintain the expectation that any new president, Sisi or otherwise, will respect a system of checks and balances, and continue to enable an open press and free and fair elections in order to remain accountable to the people as Egypt undertakes the economic reforms which are both overdue and necessary.

To undercut the new president at this point in time is nihilistic: It will not bring democracy; at best it would result in the empowerment of hardcore Islamist radicals, increase Russian influence, and could ultimately result in state failure.

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