Commentary Magazine


Topic: Muslim Brotherhood

Is Egypt Headed Back Toward Civil War?

If Egypt’s new military rulers–pretty much the same as the old, only more truculent–want to ignite a civil war, they’re going about it the right way. Not only are they prosecuting the senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are also outlawing the entire organization as a terrorist entity and targeting its funding.

That is hitting the hospitals operated by the Islamic Medical Association, a Brotherhood offshoot which serves roughly a million, mostly poor, patients every year in a country where public medical care is poor to nonexistent. Already the hospitals are seeing fewer patients because ordinary people are scared of associating with the Brotherhood; if the government crackdown continues, the hospitals could close altogether. That is not going to endear the military leadership to the populace in whose name they claim to rule.

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If Egypt’s new military rulers–pretty much the same as the old, only more truculent–want to ignite a civil war, they’re going about it the right way. Not only are they prosecuting the senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are also outlawing the entire organization as a terrorist entity and targeting its funding.

That is hitting the hospitals operated by the Islamic Medical Association, a Brotherhood offshoot which serves roughly a million, mostly poor, patients every year in a country where public medical care is poor to nonexistent. Already the hospitals are seeing fewer patients because ordinary people are scared of associating with the Brotherhood; if the government crackdown continues, the hospitals could close altogether. That is not going to endear the military leadership to the populace in whose name they claim to rule.

Nor is the military limiting its crackdown to Islamists. It is also jailing more secular pro-democracy activists and bloggers who led the original demonstrations that overthrow Hosni Mubarak.

Already there are signs of a backlash against the military crackdown. A few days ago the police headquarters in the town of Mansour was leveled by a bomb, killing at least 14 people. That brings the toll of police officers killed since August to more than 150. As the New York Times notes, “The attacks have affected police morale, officers said, and raised troubling questions about the government’s ability to secure the country in the face of increasingly frequent attacks by militants.”

And it is not just police officers who are being targeted. Recently a crude pipe bomb went off on a public bus in Cairo, injuring at least five.

These are small, early signs of how the Brotherhood and other, even more extreme Islamists are capable of hitting back against the security forces, and they run the risk of expanding into a higher level of violence that will make it impossible for the generals to revive the Egyptian economy, which depends so heavily on tourism. (Would you travel to Egypt today with your kids?)

Field Marshal Sisi, Egypt’s actual ruler today, and his subordinates in the military hierarchy appear to be punch drunk from the wave of affection that greeted their usurpation of power last summer. At that point the people of Egypt were sick of Brotherhood mismanagement and open to a more effective, secular alternative. Even many Brotherhood leaders saw that they were losing popularity and were no doubt open to some kind of accommodation with the military. By taking such a hard line, however, the military is pressing its luck and risking sending Egypt down the vortex of civil strife.

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Cairo Drama: Morsi, Hamas, and Obama

Human-rights organizations and many other Egypt-watchers are pouring scorn on the charges levied on deposed president Mohamed Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood activists by the military government in Cairo this week. The military has already charged Morsi for his complicity in attacks on demonstrators seeking his overthrow last summer. This is, of course, terribly hypocritical since, if anything, the military may have killed more people when it cracked down on the Brotherhood in the aftermath of the coup that knocked Morsi out of power and into jail. But they didn’t stop there. The government has now charged Morsi and others with engaging in terrorist plots with Hamas and Hezbollah operatives.

Much of the skepticism put forward by Human Rights Watch about all of this is justified. If the point of the charges is to claim Morsi was handing Hamas or Hezbollah control of Egypt or conspiring to give them vital national secrets, the whole thing is ridiculous. But Western observers should not be blinded to the basic facts upon which military prosecutors seem to have embroidered an extra layer of conspiracy theory. There is little doubt that Morsi regarded Hamas, and to a lesser extent Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors, as natural allies in a nation and a region where the Brotherhood is regarded with suspicion and fear. Take away the paranoia about foreign influences that lies not far below the surface in Egyptian culture and what you have is the reality of a Muslim Brotherhood government that naturally looked to Hamas for support in a pinch. Rather than all this being a cause for the Obama administration to further distance itself from the current Egyptian government, it ought to provoke some soul-searching on the part of those in the State Department and the White House that were prepared to assist Morsi’s ascent to the presidency of Egypt and his efforts to stay there.

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Human-rights organizations and many other Egypt-watchers are pouring scorn on the charges levied on deposed president Mohamed Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood activists by the military government in Cairo this week. The military has already charged Morsi for his complicity in attacks on demonstrators seeking his overthrow last summer. This is, of course, terribly hypocritical since, if anything, the military may have killed more people when it cracked down on the Brotherhood in the aftermath of the coup that knocked Morsi out of power and into jail. But they didn’t stop there. The government has now charged Morsi and others with engaging in terrorist plots with Hamas and Hezbollah operatives.

Much of the skepticism put forward by Human Rights Watch about all of this is justified. If the point of the charges is to claim Morsi was handing Hamas or Hezbollah control of Egypt or conspiring to give them vital national secrets, the whole thing is ridiculous. But Western observers should not be blinded to the basic facts upon which military prosecutors seem to have embroidered an extra layer of conspiracy theory. There is little doubt that Morsi regarded Hamas, and to a lesser extent Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors, as natural allies in a nation and a region where the Brotherhood is regarded with suspicion and fear. Take away the paranoia about foreign influences that lies not far below the surface in Egyptian culture and what you have is the reality of a Muslim Brotherhood government that naturally looked to Hamas for support in a pinch. Rather than all this being a cause for the Obama administration to further distance itself from the current Egyptian government, it ought to provoke some soul-searching on the part of those in the State Department and the White House that were prepared to assist Morsi’s ascent to the presidency of Egypt and his efforts to stay there.

The facts about relations between the Morsi government and the Brotherhood and their putative allies in Gaza and Lebanon are a little murky. It’s difficult to judge from afar exactly where the reality of a Brotherhood-Hamas alliance ends and the judicial railroading of Morsi and his colleagues by the military government begins. Suffice it to say that some of the charges may be either exaggerated or misinterpretations of routine interactions between these groups. It should also be noted that relations between the Brotherhood and Hamas were not all peaches and cream during their year in charge of things in Cairo. At various times, Morsi shut down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza in a belated effort to rein in the growing chaos in the Sinai that had been unleashed by the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the infiltration of al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups.

But what can’t be denied is that Morsi still regarded Hamas as a close ally and a potential resource in the Cairo power game as well as the regional balance of power. Hamas had, as we have long known, helped Morsi break out of jail during the waning days of the Mubarak regime. Hamas was originally founded as an offshoot of the Brotherhood and Morsi looked to it as a natural ally. The notion that he helped arm it as well as being prepared to cooperate in various other ways–including as a backup against domestic opposition–shouldn’t strike anyone as far-fetched. Nor should we be surprised by allegations about Morsi and his crew contemplating an opening with fellow Islamists in Iran.

The prosecutions against Morsi and other Brotherhood officials are politically motivated and no one should expect them to get a fair trial from the military. But had he remained in power there’s equally little doubt that the Islamist alliances he was making could have altered not only the face of Egypt but also that of the rest of the region.

All this should serve as a reminder to Washington of how foolish its policies were in the prelude to the Brotherhood’s brief period of power as well as during its period of ascendancy. The Obama administration always sought to portray itself as neutral as to who ran things in Cairo, but the only times it has exercised its considerable leverage over Egypt is when it persuaded the military to let the Brotherhood take power and afterwards to punish the generals for ousting Morsi.

In doing so, it undid decades of hard work and investment of billions of aid dollars by previous administrations to keep Egypt as a U.S. ally so long as it kept the peace with Israel. It first failed to see the danger in allowing an Islamist authoritarian group to take control of the most populous Arab nation and then miscalculated how its pique about the coup would cause the military to embrace the efforts of the Russians to get their foot back in the door in Cairo. As I wrote earlier this week, the culmination of an arms deal between Russia and Egypt sets the stage for a decline in U.S. influence in the region and enhances Vladimir Putin’s ability to make mischief.

The reassertion of brutal military rule in Egypt is nothing to cheer about. But the only alternative in the form of an Islamist Brotherhood government was far worse. Morsi’s ties with Hamas are being used to trump up a dubious legal case against him, but they were still a threat to U.S. influence and regional stability. Instead of crying crocodile tears for Morsi (who is now getting the same treatment that he was happy to dish out to his foes), those who care about peace should be glad that the military is doing its utmost to ensure that he never gets another chance to disrupt the Middle East.

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The Problem with Turkey’s “Zero-Problem” Foreign Policy

With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

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With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

This worldview is what led him to actively support the flotilla, sponsored by a terror-affiliated Islamist organization, despite knowing violence might ensue; downgrade ties with Israel in a fit of pique after a UN investigation of the incident upheld the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza; and refuse to restore them even after President Obama personally brokered a reconciliation deal, since the deal didn’t include ending the blockade. Supporting his fellow Islamists in Hamas trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

This is also what led him to actively support the Sunni rebels–and particularly the most radical Islamists among them–against Syria’s Alawite regime, and why he’s never stopped denouncing the Egyptian coup, even as the rest of the world has long since accepted that it’s not only a fait accompli, but enjoys broad popular support. In these cases, too, loyalty to his fellow Islamists trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

Such a principled foreign policy might be admirable if it weren’t for one problem: The principle Erdogan is supporting–Islamism–happens to be a destabilizing one. Inter alia, the Islamist governments and movements he’s supported have produced nonstop rocket fire on Israel from Gaza, a brutal civil war in Syria, and governmental abuses and incompetence in Egypt on a scale that generated massive support for the coup. Hence Erdogan’s commitment to his Islamist foreign policy has only further destabilized an unstable region.

Iran, of course, is also committed to Islamism, albeit the Shi’ite rather than the Sunni variety. Indeed, its foreign policy has been even more aggressive and destabilizing than Turkey’s: Witness its support for the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria and for Hezbollah’s virtual takeover of Lebanon. And since Islamism is the Iranian regime’s raison d’etre, no deal with Washington is going to end its commitment to an Islamist foreign policy.   

The lesson for America ought to be that Islamists–even “moderate” ones, to quote the Washington elite’s favorite adjective for both Erdogan and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani–don’t make good foreign-policy partners. Unless, that is, one thinks even more instability in a volatile region is a good idea.

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The Brotherhood Waves the White Flag

A few weeks ago I wrote about the capture of a Muslim Brotherhood leader by Egypt’s military government and observed that the bloodbath and popular revolution that many observers expected after last summer’s coup hadn’t materialized. Today comes news that seems to make plain what was just an informed guess in October: the Brotherhood knows it is beaten. As Haaretz reports,

A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition of organizations in Egypt announced Saturday that it wants to engage in dialogue with the interim government in order to put an end to the current political impasse.

The call by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy is the first formal proposition by Morsi supporters, who have organized near-daily protests demanding his return to office since he was removed in a popularly supported military coup on July 3. It also marks the first time the group has not demanded Morsi’s return to power.

In other words, the organization is conceding that ousted Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi is never going to be president of Egypt again and that if they want any say in their country’s future it will have to be on the military’s terms. This is big news for Egyptians, since it signals that a repeat of Algeria’s decade-long bloody civil war after that country’s army ousted an Islamist government is now off the table. This puts to rest the argument often heard in this country calling for a stern U.S. response to the coup since it was thought in some quarters to not only a guarantee a long terrorist war but suppression of a legitimate point of view that could count on the support of a critical mass of Egyptians. But if the Brotherhood is waving the white flag and appealing for the tolerance of the government, if not peace with it, it is as strong an indication as we are likely to get that the group knows it’s licked.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the capture of a Muslim Brotherhood leader by Egypt’s military government and observed that the bloodbath and popular revolution that many observers expected after last summer’s coup hadn’t materialized. Today comes news that seems to make plain what was just an informed guess in October: the Brotherhood knows it is beaten. As Haaretz reports,

A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition of organizations in Egypt announced Saturday that it wants to engage in dialogue with the interim government in order to put an end to the current political impasse.

The call by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy is the first formal proposition by Morsi supporters, who have organized near-daily protests demanding his return to office since he was removed in a popularly supported military coup on July 3. It also marks the first time the group has not demanded Morsi’s return to power.

In other words, the organization is conceding that ousted Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi is never going to be president of Egypt again and that if they want any say in their country’s future it will have to be on the military’s terms. This is big news for Egyptians, since it signals that a repeat of Algeria’s decade-long bloody civil war after that country’s army ousted an Islamist government is now off the table. This puts to rest the argument often heard in this country calling for a stern U.S. response to the coup since it was thought in some quarters to not only a guarantee a long terrorist war but suppression of a legitimate point of view that could count on the support of a critical mass of Egyptians. But if the Brotherhood is waving the white flag and appealing for the tolerance of the government, if not peace with it, it is as strong an indication as we are likely to get that the group knows it’s licked.

Let’s specify that the process by which the army has repressed the Brotherhood was based on repression, not debate. The military has killed Brotherhood protesters and done everything possible to hinder their ability to organize opposition to their rule. But their victory was made possible by something that many critics of the coup did not understand or sought to deny: the toppling of Morsi’s government was as much an expression of the will of the Egyptian people as the movement that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

Tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets of Egyptian cities in the last days of the Morsi government calling for it to cease its drive for total power and to allow the people a vote on whether it should hold onto power. But if the military had not stepped in, there is little doubt that Morsi not only would have stayed in office but that he would have continued his efforts to ensure that he could never be defeated by fair means or foul. Though it had been able to call on the support of many Egyptians in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster and won an election, the year of Brotherhood rule that followed convinced many of those who voted for them they had made a mistake. Though some Western journalists were fooled into thinking the Brotherhood had no intentions of transforming the country into an Islamist state, the Egyptian people were not fooled.

That is why when some Brotherhood leaders vowed vengeance after the coup and sought to create an uprising, few supported such a move. The Islamists were not only intimidated by the military’s show of force; they were rejected by the people among whom they had thought to hide in plain sight, as is the case with successful guerrilla wars. Egyptians understood, even if many Americans did not, that democracy was not an option and that if they had to choose between the military and the Brotherhood, there was no doubt which was the more preferable option.

It is in this context that the Obama administration’s aid cutoffs to Egypt should be viewed. While it is proper for the U.S. to encourage a turn to democracy in Egypt, it must be on terms that will make it impossible for a totalitarian movement like the Brotherhood to win back power.

The Obama administration has foolishly downgraded ties with Egypt and even acted as if it wished for a return of the Morsi government that it had for a time embraced. This shortsighted policy has left an opening for Russia to seek to revive an alliance with Egypt that was ended by Anwar Sadat. But the moral of this story remains clear: while some in the West seemed to accept the Brotherhood’s claim that Islamism was the wave of the future in the Middle East and that they could not be defeated, the military and people of Egypt have proved the contrary to be true. Islamists can be beaten. That’s something the U.S. should be celebrating, not condemning.

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Islamist Tyrant Morsi’s No Martyr

The optics weren’t ideal for Secretary of State John Kerry. The day after he visited Egypt to try and mend fences with the country’s military government, deposed President Mohamed Morsi went on trial in Cairo during which he challenged that regime’s legitimacy and defied the court’s right to try him. The juxtaposition of these events was enough to earn Kerry a rhetorical spanking from the New York Times editorial page that chided him for backtracking on the administration’s effort to distance itself from the military after it deposed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in July. Kerry’s effort was late and clumsy, especially coming only a week after National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the Times that Egypt was just not a priority for Washington in the wake of its decision to cut military aid to Cairo. But however inept this administration’s Egypt policy has been, there should be no doubt about one thing: no one should be buying Morsi’s martyr act.

There’s little doubt that, as the Times indicated, the generals are hypocrites for trying Morsi for inciting the killing of protesters when they have been guilty of treating the Brotherhood in the same manner. The military is determined to crush the Brotherhood and Morsi has no chance of being acquitted of the charges. But even those like the Times and the people inside the administration that were happy to embrace the Brotherhood during its year of power need to admit that the deposed leader is almost certainly guilty. Moreover, though his deposition was the result of a coup, Morsi’s defiance of the court told us all we need to know about why the military decided to act after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for his ouster.

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The optics weren’t ideal for Secretary of State John Kerry. The day after he visited Egypt to try and mend fences with the country’s military government, deposed President Mohamed Morsi went on trial in Cairo during which he challenged that regime’s legitimacy and defied the court’s right to try him. The juxtaposition of these events was enough to earn Kerry a rhetorical spanking from the New York Times editorial page that chided him for backtracking on the administration’s effort to distance itself from the military after it deposed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in July. Kerry’s effort was late and clumsy, especially coming only a week after National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the Times that Egypt was just not a priority for Washington in the wake of its decision to cut military aid to Cairo. But however inept this administration’s Egypt policy has been, there should be no doubt about one thing: no one should be buying Morsi’s martyr act.

There’s little doubt that, as the Times indicated, the generals are hypocrites for trying Morsi for inciting the killing of protesters when they have been guilty of treating the Brotherhood in the same manner. The military is determined to crush the Brotherhood and Morsi has no chance of being acquitted of the charges. But even those like the Times and the people inside the administration that were happy to embrace the Brotherhood during its year of power need to admit that the deposed leader is almost certainly guilty. Moreover, though his deposition was the result of a coup, Morsi’s defiance of the court told us all we need to know about why the military decided to act after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for his ouster.

While denouncing his captors, Morsi declared that he was still the president of Egypt in the courtroom. Though his claim of a democratic mandate was undermined by his distinctly undemocratic behavior, he probably can make some claim to still hold office until a successor is elected. But the conceit of his stand is not so much that the coup is wrong, as it is that no one had a right to judge him: not the court, the military, nor the millions of protesters who sought his ouster.

Although the Brotherhood attained power via an election, their ouster should in no way be considered a blow to democracy. The Islamist leader seems to be taking the line that he is above the law. The Islamists have always refused to play by anyone’s rules but their own, so while it is true that his treatment may seem harsh, it is in keeping with the methods he sought to employ against his rivals. He is simply a tyrant who failed in his attempt to impose a totalitarian system on Egypt, not a martyr.

This is the core issue behind the debate about whether to punish the military for its efforts to crush the Brotherhood. Once in power, Morsi and his party had one goal: the imposition of its Islamist beliefs on the entire country and ensuring that no opposition would ever be allowed to make them accountable or to evict them from office. If the military has been able in the four months since the coup to decapitate the once popular Islamist party and to ensure that it has not been able to mount a serious terrorist threat against the new government, it is because many Egyptians who supported the Brotherhood as the only alternative to the Mubarak dictatorship now see that the cure was worse than the disease.

The conflict in Egypt is a zero-sum game in which the only choices available to the West are the Brotherhood and the military. That’s why Kerry is right to start and retreat from the president’s foolish decisions on Egypt. As Eric Trager writes in The Atlantic, the Brotherhood is far from dead, and it will require vigilance in order to ensure that it will not again become a serious threat to Egypt or the region. But it should gain no traction or sympathy from Westerners who are moved by Morsi’s pleas and crocodile tears about the democratic process.

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Beating the Brotherhood Isn’t Impossible

Last summer when Egypt’s military intervened in a conflict between a protest movement composed of what appeared to be tens of millions of citizens and the country’s Muslim Brotherhood government, critics of the coup warned the generals not to exclude the Islamist party from government. While there was a case to be made against overturning the results of an election, the Brotherhood’s use of the power it gained to try to transform Egypt and to ensure it could never be challenged galvanized public opinion against it. But those calling for a cutoff of U.S. aid to Cairo to punish the military for usurping Mohamed Morsi also warned that any effort to defeat the Brotherhood rather than to bring it into the next government would backfire. The Brotherhood would, we were told, go quickly underground and be impossible to root out. The assumption was that the Islamists would not only survive but that it would transform Egypt into another Algeria where, in a similar fashion, the military denied power to Islamists and plunged that country into a bloody conflict.

But more than three months later, it appears that the predictions of doom were exaggerated. As the New York Times reports, the military just announced the arrest of one more Muslim Brotherhood leader, Essam el-Erian, a senior leader and advisor to ousted president Morsi. With el-Erian, the military has now effectively decapitated the Brotherhood with virtually every member of the group’s leadership now in prison. The capture of this particular figure is especially satisfying for the military since he is thought of as being, along with Morsi, a symbol of Islamist overreach and a key figure in the group’s attempt to establish hegemony over Egypt. But the main point is that, without much in the way of resistance from the Brotherhood and its vaunted underground capabilities, the military looks to have won its battle. Indeed, as the Daily Beast reported earlier this month, Gen. General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi has become a popular figure. This is especially true since the Obama administration foolishly cut off most of the aid the U.S. sends to Egypt annually.

There are two conclusions that may be drawn from this.

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Last summer when Egypt’s military intervened in a conflict between a protest movement composed of what appeared to be tens of millions of citizens and the country’s Muslim Brotherhood government, critics of the coup warned the generals not to exclude the Islamist party from government. While there was a case to be made against overturning the results of an election, the Brotherhood’s use of the power it gained to try to transform Egypt and to ensure it could never be challenged galvanized public opinion against it. But those calling for a cutoff of U.S. aid to Cairo to punish the military for usurping Mohamed Morsi also warned that any effort to defeat the Brotherhood rather than to bring it into the next government would backfire. The Brotherhood would, we were told, go quickly underground and be impossible to root out. The assumption was that the Islamists would not only survive but that it would transform Egypt into another Algeria where, in a similar fashion, the military denied power to Islamists and plunged that country into a bloody conflict.

But more than three months later, it appears that the predictions of doom were exaggerated. As the New York Times reports, the military just announced the arrest of one more Muslim Brotherhood leader, Essam el-Erian, a senior leader and advisor to ousted president Morsi. With el-Erian, the military has now effectively decapitated the Brotherhood with virtually every member of the group’s leadership now in prison. The capture of this particular figure is especially satisfying for the military since he is thought of as being, along with Morsi, a symbol of Islamist overreach and a key figure in the group’s attempt to establish hegemony over Egypt. But the main point is that, without much in the way of resistance from the Brotherhood and its vaunted underground capabilities, the military looks to have won its battle. Indeed, as the Daily Beast reported earlier this month, Gen. General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi has become a popular figure. This is especially true since the Obama administration foolishly cut off most of the aid the U.S. sends to Egypt annually.

There are two conclusions that may be drawn from this.

One is that those who warned that the Islamists were, if not invincible, at least impossible to defeat, were wrong. It is true that the last word has not been spoken on the conflict in Egypt and the Brotherhood may well rally itself to cause more harm. But it is also clear that, at least for the moment, it doesn’t appear that the group is capable of mounting an insurgency that could threaten the military. Rather than make the country unstable, as critics of the coup warned, it seems to have had exactly the effect the military hoped it would have. While democracy is nowhere in sight in Egypt, it has also not descended into chaos, let alone civil war.

Also instructive is the fact that the Brotherhood is not as popular as its American cheerleaders (including, unfortunately, much of the administration) thought it was.

When the Mubarak regime fell in 2011, the Brotherhood was the only organized opposition party and took full advantage of its advantage in the rush to transform the country into a democracy. With powerful friends in Turkey and in Gaza (where its ideological offshoot Hamas ruled), the Brotherhood was popular and powerful. Other new parties, especially those that were secular or liberal, were no match for it and it breezed to victory in the elections that followed.

The assumption was that not only would the Brotherhood quickly adapt to the coup and resume its status as the leader of the opposition in the underground but that it could still count on the backing of a critical mass of Egyptians.

But the year in power may have degraded the Brotherhood’s ability to pose a terrorist threat to the new regime in Cairo.

On the one hand, assuming office took them public in a way they had never done before. That makes it much harder for them to operate underground. But their time in power, and the enormous hostility they generated among ordinary Egyptians, may have also made it impossible for them to lead any kind of clandestine effort. Not only are they more visible but their unpopularity—tens of millions took to the streets to protest against them—may have rendered it impossible for them to practice the classic technique of the guerilla and to hide in plain sight.

This should also call into question the judgment of the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt. Not only, as the New York Times reported last weekend, is the United States still laboring under the burden of the president’s embrace of the Brotherhood during its year of power. But it is also now deeply resented by most Egyptians for its disdain for a change in power that most of them approved. And the military, which was long a bastion of sympathy for America, is now alienated and perhaps tempted by Russia’s efforts to revive the ties it had with Egypt until Anwar Sadat dumped them.

The U.S. miscalculated badly in Egypt. Not only is the military firmly established in power, but the most populous Arab nation may also be drifting out of the U.S. orbit. But as bad as that may be, there is something in this tale of failure that should encourage the West. The Arab spring may have turned in many places into an Islamist winter, but their eventual triumph is not certain. Totalitarian movements like the Brotherhood can be defeated.

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The Bizarro Doctrine

American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

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American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

Iran, a country that has sponsored nearly every terrorist group on the planet and is now hurtling toward a nuclear weapon, is the biggest winner in the Elddim Tsae. Newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has Washington eating out of his hands after a charm offensive consisting of 140-character vows promising moderation, even as his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, keeps the centrifuges spinning. The Obama administration is now mulling a grand nuclear bargain, which will provide Iran sanctions relief in exchange for vague promises of change.

Syria is also benefiting from America’s Bizarro Doctrine. In the span of days, America went from threatening punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime for launching a chemical-weapons attack on his own people to enlisting Assad as a partner in his own disarmament, and then praising him for compliance he has yet to deliver on. Even if Assad does fully disarm, he will effectively have a green light to get back to the business of mowing down the Syrian opposition, which fights to end his family’s decades-long dictatorship.

Then there is Sudan, where the leadership has been indicted for genocide and which provided a headquarters to al-Qaeda in the 1990s. Khartoum is now indicating that ties with Washington are warming. This comes after two cordial meetings between Sudan’s foreign minister and Secretary of State John Kerry, first in New York and then Washington.

On the flip side of our parallel universe is Saudi Arabia. Admittedly, Riyadh is more of a frenemy. But America’s Saudi policy, designed to maintain good ties to the ruling family and access to an affordable and steady supply of their oil, has never wavered–until now. Riyadh is outwardly displeased with America’s warming ties to its arch-foe Iran, with fears that an ascendant Iran could pose a direct threat to the Kingdom’s stability. Washington’s recent lifeline to Syria, after months of calling for Assad’s removal, also has the Saudis seething.

Turkey and Qatar, it should be noted, are equally vexed by Washington’s Syria policy, prompting both countries to consider charting their own courses, which may involve the co-opting of jihadi groups to fight the Assad regime.

Egypt, another ally of the United States, has also recently fallen victim to the Bizarro Doctrine. To be sure, Egypt has brought many of its problems upon itself. The military’s toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was not its finest moment. But Washington has now taken it upon itself to cut aid to Egypt, dismantling an alliance that could require years to properly rebuild.

Then there is Israel, which is reeling from America’s decision to cut aid to Egypt. That aid was a cornerstone of the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement that has kept Israel’s southern flank quiet since the Accords were inked. It now is entirely unclear whether Cairo will want to uphold that agreement. The Israelis are further unnerved by America’s backtracking on Syria, particularly after Washington enlisted its help in calling for military intervention. And finally, the rapprochement with Iran has the Israelis wondering whether America will have its back when Tehran invariably makes that final dash for the bomb.

Fittingly, Bizarro World was first depicted by DC Comics in 1960. Today, Washington D.C. has become a parallel universe of a superpower’s foreign policies of the past.

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Egyptians on Obama’s Aid Decision

Both Jonathan Tobin and Max Boot have offered up their thoughts on the U.S. cutoff of military aid to Egypt, and I agree that the cutoff of aid is a mistake, especially as the interim Egyptian government now has a process to rewrite a constitution with adequate checks and balances, and appears to be ready to hold elections in June 2014. The United States would have better used its leverage if it ensured that those elections were observed by credible, independent, and international groups.

It is one thing to suggest that the Obama administration has harmed U.S. credibility, it is another thing to demonstrate it. In that context, a compilation put together by the BBC Monitoring of both English and Arabic-language Egyptian press and tweets commenting on the White House decision is worth considering. While there is no direct link available, the following excerpts are reflective of the larger compilation:

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Both Jonathan Tobin and Max Boot have offered up their thoughts on the U.S. cutoff of military aid to Egypt, and I agree that the cutoff of aid is a mistake, especially as the interim Egyptian government now has a process to rewrite a constitution with adequate checks and balances, and appears to be ready to hold elections in June 2014. The United States would have better used its leverage if it ensured that those elections were observed by credible, independent, and international groups.

It is one thing to suggest that the Obama administration has harmed U.S. credibility, it is another thing to demonstrate it. In that context, a compilation put together by the BBC Monitoring of both English and Arabic-language Egyptian press and tweets commenting on the White House decision is worth considering. While there is no direct link available, the following excerpts are reflective of the larger compilation:

  • Al-Tahrir daily leads with the following headline above its masthead: “Let the US aid go to hell.” Following the main headline, it carries other headlines, quoting economic and military experts as saying: “Washington uses the aid to pressure the army and Egypt should reject it now and immediately … Egypt will become stronger after the aid stops and the foreign market will be open for it to import weapons … World press: Cutting aid not to affect Egypt.”
  • The editorial of privately-owned Al-Yawm al-Sabi [is] entitled: “Let the US aid go and independence stay.”
  • Egyptian Channel 1 TV quoted the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Badr Abd-al-Ati, as saying that Egypt rejects the use of US aid as a “tool to exercise pressure” on internal decisions. “The US decision is wrong and the US side has to reconsider it,” he added.”The Egyptian government is committed to implementing the roadmap to satisfy the Egyptian people rather than Washington,” he also said.
  • Leftist activist Kamal Khalil who has 69,187 followers tweeted in Arabic: “Down with US aid. O White House, you are low. We are a people that do not yield.”
  • Famous TV Presenter Jihan Mansur, who has more than is 65,000 followers tweeted in Arabic: “The USA has no right to suspend military aid stipulated in Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement as long as Egypt is committed to it.”
  • Coptic activist @MichaelMeunier tweeted in English: “The US is on the losing end of this battle as it continues to support the terrorist organization the Brotherhood.”
  • Editor-in-chief of private Al-Watan daily, @Magdi-ElGalad said: “Late president Jamal abd-al-Nasir said aid is on my shoe [Egyptian saying that aid is less important than a shoe] and we [Egyptians] are telling them [USA]: You, aid and the Brotherhood are under our shoe.”

 The compilation then turns to Muslim Brotherhood acolytes, who supported Obama’s decision and called on Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers to publicly support Obama before Congress. I guess it’s only a matter of time, then, before the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) comes out with its full-throated embrace of a position to return Egypt to Muslim Brotherhood domination, regardless of what tens of millions of Egyptians feel and believe.

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Delayed Egypt Aid Decision Causes Concern

Context matters in international affairs, as in other areas. That’s why, although I understand why he acted as he did, I’m troubled by the impact of President Obama’s decision to cut off some military aid to Egypt.

If he had taken this action when the military first staged their coup back in July, that would have been one thing. He could have cited U.S. law that forbids providing aid after a military coup and the world would have understood if not necessarily agreed with him. But by waiting and dithering for three months, his decision is harder to explain or defend because it is happening in the context of other U.S. actions that are alienating all of our traditional allies in the Middle East.

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Context matters in international affairs, as in other areas. That’s why, although I understand why he acted as he did, I’m troubled by the impact of President Obama’s decision to cut off some military aid to Egypt.

If he had taken this action when the military first staged their coup back in July, that would have been one thing. He could have cited U.S. law that forbids providing aid after a military coup and the world would have understood if not necessarily agreed with him. But by waiting and dithering for three months, his decision is harder to explain or defend because it is happening in the context of other U.S. actions that are alienating all of our traditional allies in the Middle East.

Obama has won hosannas from many Americans for refusing to stage air strikes on Syria and instead striking a deal with Bashar Assad to supposedly eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. He has won even more praise for his now-famous phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his willingness to strike a deal with Iran. But, whatever the merits of those policies (and, in defense of Obama, it must be said that it is possible that the deal with Assad could succeed and that, even if the Iranian deal doesn’t work out, it is one that any president would have to explore), they are not being greeted warmly in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City, Jerusalem, Amman, and other American-allied capitals. Neither is the partial cutoff to the Egyptian military that will encompass only “nonessential” aid (e.g., F-16 fighters, Apache helicopters) while allowing crucial spare parts and counter-terrorism aid to flow.

America’s allies believe they are locked in an existential struggle with both Sunni and Shiite theocrats—al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood on one side, Hezbollah and the Quds Force on the other. They are in favor of suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and in favor of bombing the Iranian nuclear program. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. has to adopt their policy preferences. But we need to be aware of them, and to be aware, moreover, that the dominant perception of the U.S. in the region is of a superpower in retreat–a superpower that refuses to uphold red lines and that wants to pursue diplomatic deals of dubious reliability as a cover for full-scale disengagement.

Unfortunately the partial Egypt military aid cutoff–part of an Obama tendency to split the difference on difficult foreign-policy decisions (remember the Afghan surge timeline?)—will only feed that narrative. On the merits, Obama’s decision is defensible; indeed, after initially opposing an aid cutoff, I reluctantly came around to supporting it. But now I’m having second thoughts. I’m afraid the consequence of announcing the aid pullback now is that it will reinforce the tendency of our allies to be a lot less willing to rely on us and to listen to us. They may well wind up taking actions that Washington argues against—in the case of Israel, bombing the Iranian nuclear program; in the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have already provided billions in aid to the Egyptian military despite a lack of American support, pursuing their own nuclear programs; in the case of Iraq, Turkey, and Qatar, cozying up to Iran; and so on. A couple of commando raids in Libya and Somalia will not dispel the impression of an America in retreat; it may even reinforce that view by showing how the U.S. prefers to engage in hit-and-run raids rather than in deeper engagement.

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Obama Blunders Again on Egypt

With the Obama administration dithering on Syria and then embracing a new round of engagement with Iran, the turmoil in Egypt, which was the top foreign news story this past summer, has largely been out of the headlines since August. In the intervening months, the Egyptian military has been following up on the coup in which they ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi by suppressing the Islamist group. Though all indications point to the military retaining the support of most Egyptians—they only intervened to topple Morsi after tens of millions took to the streets to protest the Brotherhood’s push to transform the world’s most populous Arab country into an Islamist state—the situation remains fluid. In the last week alone some 900 Egyptians, including 100 police and military personnel, have been killed in violence sparked by Brotherhood protests. This latest outbreak is apparently the last straw for an Obama administration that had supported Morsi and discouraged the coup. As the New York Times reports, administration officials are saying that within days the U.S. will formally cut military aid to Egypt.

The aid cutoff will be trumpeted by the administration as a sign that it is serious about supporting democracy and upholding the rule of law. But if the goal here is to help end the violence in Egypt or bolster stability in the region, this is the worst mistake President Obama can make. U.S. influence in Egypt is already minimal, but a gesture that will be interpreted as encouraging the Brotherhood protests will be seen as evidence that, despite Washington’s denials, Obama really does favor the Islamists. After handing Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime’s Iranian allies an unexpected and unearned victory in Syria, it appears the administration is determined to pursue its grudge against the military even if it undermines what’s left of U.S. influence in the region as well as undermining the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

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With the Obama administration dithering on Syria and then embracing a new round of engagement with Iran, the turmoil in Egypt, which was the top foreign news story this past summer, has largely been out of the headlines since August. In the intervening months, the Egyptian military has been following up on the coup in which they ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi by suppressing the Islamist group. Though all indications point to the military retaining the support of most Egyptians—they only intervened to topple Morsi after tens of millions took to the streets to protest the Brotherhood’s push to transform the world’s most populous Arab country into an Islamist state—the situation remains fluid. In the last week alone some 900 Egyptians, including 100 police and military personnel, have been killed in violence sparked by Brotherhood protests. This latest outbreak is apparently the last straw for an Obama administration that had supported Morsi and discouraged the coup. As the New York Times reports, administration officials are saying that within days the U.S. will formally cut military aid to Egypt.

The aid cutoff will be trumpeted by the administration as a sign that it is serious about supporting democracy and upholding the rule of law. But if the goal here is to help end the violence in Egypt or bolster stability in the region, this is the worst mistake President Obama can make. U.S. influence in Egypt is already minimal, but a gesture that will be interpreted as encouraging the Brotherhood protests will be seen as evidence that, despite Washington’s denials, Obama really does favor the Islamists. After handing Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime’s Iranian allies an unexpected and unearned victory in Syria, it appears the administration is determined to pursue its grudge against the military even if it undermines what’s left of U.S. influence in the region as well as undermining the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

The bloody crackdowns on the Brotherhood are not easy to defend. But the difference between Cairo and Washington is not so much one about tactics as it is about whether a totalitarian Islamist party should have been allowed to hijack the post-Mubarak revolution and ensure that it could never be forced to give up power. While many of us may have hoped that the Arab Spring could bring democracy to Egypt, it was soon clear that this was a pipe dream. The choice in Egypt is not between democracy and the military but between an Islamist dictatorship and secular authoritarians. As such the U.S. should have little doubt about the relative attractiveness of the latter. If anything like democracy is ever to prevail in Egypt—a proposition that ought to be treated as doubtful even as a long-range hypothetical—it can only happen once the Brotherhood is eliminated as a political power.

The aid cutoff, which will reportedly not include some money aimed at bolstering counter-terrorism, won’t topple the military. But it will encourage the Brotherhood to persist in their effort to win back power. Thus rather than helping to ensure that violence is gradually eliminated, it more or less guarantees a longer struggle in which the Islamists will believe their military opponents are isolated.

The arguments in favor of cutting off aid or at least using the threat as leverage in order to force the military are based in an assumption that the Brotherhood is too strong and too numerous to be eliminated. But while the Brotherhood remains formidable, the military has already proved that the Islamists don’t have the support of the people as they had always claimed. The Obama administration has been trying to play both ends against the middle in Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak and failed miserably, as both Islamists and secular Egyptians blamed the U.S. for backing their opponents.

Had the U.S. cut aid at the time of the coup the policy would have been a mistake, but it would been consistent with past efforts to back the Brotherhood and to keep the military in its place. But to do so now after the Brotherhood is on the run and seemingly beaten is neither logical nor good policy.

It is also, as many in Israel have pointed out, a blow to regional security. The months since the coup have seen Cairo and Jerusalem working together as never before. The two countries have worked together to fight the growing al-Qaeda presence in the Sinai that had filled the vacuum left by the Brotherhood government. The military government has also placed tremendous financial pressure on the Hamas regime in Gaza, a policy that is a blow to terrorism as well as bolstering, at least in theory, the Israel-Palestinian peace process. By contrast, cutting off the aid will be a blow to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and strengthen the voices of those Egyptians who want to revise or junk it altogether.

The consequences of the cutoff cannot be fully predicted, but for the U.S. to blithely assume that Cairo has no other options for a foreign ally or military aid again demonstrates the amateurism that has largely characterized Obama’s foreign policy. The U.S. alliance with Egypt began when Anwar Sadat kicked the Soviets out in exchange for U.S. cash that was made contingent on Cairo keeping the peace with Israel. With Russia now regaining some of their lost prestige by Obama’s allowing Putin to have his way in Syria, is it really such a stretch to believe that Moscow might fill the void left by Washington? Does anyone, even in the Obama State Department, think that the causes of peace, stability, or even democracy would be advanced by another Putin foreign-policy triumph? Having already given new meaning to the term incompetence in its dealings in the Middle East, the administration may be about to make things even worse.

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Egyptian Military Is on the Clock

Foreign policy realpolitikers who favor backing the Egyptian generals argue that they have already ended the threat posed by Muslim Brotherhood rule and that they will now destroy the Brotherhood as a future threat to Egypt–and by implication to the U.S. and Israel. Some other analysts have been dubious about this argument not because we don’t share the goal of ending Brotherhood rule in Egypt but because we fear that the military crackdown will not succeed in suppressing the Brotherhood and, by forcing it underground, will only make it a greater terrorist threat in the future.

So far evidence has been lacking as to which view is right. Egypt has certainly not been thrown into the cauldron of civil war since the military coup in July. It looks nothing like Syria or even Iraq. But nor is the military crackdown entirely unopposed. The latest news:

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Foreign policy realpolitikers who favor backing the Egyptian generals argue that they have already ended the threat posed by Muslim Brotherhood rule and that they will now destroy the Brotherhood as a future threat to Egypt–and by implication to the U.S. and Israel. Some other analysts have been dubious about this argument not because we don’t share the goal of ending Brotherhood rule in Egypt but because we fear that the military crackdown will not succeed in suppressing the Brotherhood and, by forcing it underground, will only make it a greater terrorist threat in the future.

So far evidence has been lacking as to which view is right. Egypt has certainly not been thrown into the cauldron of civil war since the military coup in July. It looks nothing like Syria or even Iraq. But nor is the military crackdown entirely unopposed. The latest news:

Deadly violence against the government broke out around Egypt on Monday as health officials raised to 53 the number said to have been killed the day before in clashes between supporters and opponents of the military takeover that ousted President Mohamed Morsi three months ago.

Unidentified gunmen in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia killed six soldiers, including a lieutenant, in a drive-by shooting, while a car bomb at the security headquarters in the southern Sinai town of El-Tor killed two police officers and injured nearly 50 other people, state media reported. In Cairo, assailants fired at least one rocket-propelled grenade through a satellite dish used to transmit Egyptian state television.

This is ominous–but hardly determinative. Supporters of the military coup have to acknowledge that the threat of civil war–and with it the creation of fresh terrorists–is rising. Critics of the coup, including me, have to acknowledge that our worst fears have not come to pass yet and may never do so.

The reason why Egypt has been stumbling along since July is probably because the Brotherhood sacrificed so much legitimacy with its bumbling while in power. The military, aided by a massive cash infusion from the Persian Gulf monarchies and a willingness to undo the minimal privatization that took place under the now-released despot Hosni Mubarak, has been able to kick start the economy at least temporarily, thus enhancing its short-term popularity.

But Egypt is still in a parlous economic condition and its top hard-currency earner–tourism–is not going to revive while potential travelers are reading headlines about clashes and casualties. The billions sent by the Saudis, Emiratis, and others will not last forever. Already economists are saying that Egypt will grow at only 2.6 percent this fiscal year, well below the government’s objective of 3.5 percent growth. Faster growth is a necessity, lest large numbers of unemployed young men prove to be a destabilizing force.

The military has only a limited amount of time to show that it is better at governance than the Brotherhood or it is likely to face the same sort of backlash that Mohamed Morsi & Co. faced–and that backlash could easily produce more violence.

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Embrace the Anti-Islamist Backlash

Against the backdrop of Washington’s collective Attention Deficit Disorder, the coup in Egypt is ancient history and the Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey are forgotten. Neither should be, as they are indicative of a trend that the United States should both recognize and upon which it should act.

The coup in Egypt was against political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood had promised Egyptians accountability and economic development, but ousted President Mohamed Morsi gave the ol’ bait-and-switch and focused on imposing the Brotherhood’s intolerant and religiously conservative social agenda. To convince Egyptians, disgusted with decades of the military’s corrupt and authoritarian rule, to reconsider the military as the lesser of evils took special skill. Read More

Against the backdrop of Washington’s collective Attention Deficit Disorder, the coup in Egypt is ancient history and the Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey are forgotten. Neither should be, as they are indicative of a trend that the United States should both recognize and upon which it should act.

The coup in Egypt was against political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood had promised Egyptians accountability and economic development, but ousted President Mohamed Morsi gave the ol’ bait-and-switch and focused on imposing the Brotherhood’s intolerant and religiously conservative social agenda. To convince Egyptians, disgusted with decades of the military’s corrupt and authoritarian rule, to reconsider the military as the lesser of evils took special skill.

This summer’s protests in Turkey were also the result of a long-simmering liberal backlash against the ruling party’s autocracy and Islamism.

Now, there are signs that Islamists have jumped the shark in Jordan as well. David Schenker—the best analyst of Jordan (and Syria) in Washington—points me to this story, from the Arabic press in Jordan: An Islamist deputy proposed a bill that would mandate that Jordan’s laws be harmonized with Sharia, Islamic law. Bad news for the Islamists, though: They could muster only 27 votes out of 150. Jordan is by no means a democracy and its elections are far from free and fair, but it does allow Islamists to run and, at times, the Muslim Brotherhood has been effectively the largest parliamentary bloc.

In Tunisia, secularists are also rallying as Islamists increasingly turn to assassination and show their true, anti-democratic colors. In the United Arab Emirates as well, the Islamist al-Islah party is on the defensive, its own coup plot disrupted.

Iranians repeatedly have shown their disgust with the theocrats who have eviscerated their sovereignty in the name of religion.

For too long, the United States has reacted to events without a clear strategy. While George W. Bush articulated a strategy in the wake of 9/11, his national-security staff lacked the will and ability to transform vision into reality and enforce policy discipline on the interagency process.

Democratization is an important—and laudable—goal, but it cannot come instantly, only when the right circumstances are set. This should not be an excuse to embrace the status quo (as too many in the State Department do), but to push the region in a direction where true liberalism is possible. To do so requires defeating the ideology of political Islam, an ideology no less noxious than the various autocratic ideologies which blighted the 20th century. In the current issue of National Review, I argue that the United States should embrace a ‘roll-back’ strategy against the Muslim Brotherhood and, more broadly, political Islamism.

The signs are many that ordinary Arabs, Turks, and Iranians have started to recognize that religion is no panacea for worldly ills. How unfortunate it is that U.S. policymakers are not seizing this opportunity—and even appear willing to seize defeat from the jaws of victory in Iran, Turkey, and across the region.

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Kuwait as a Model

The bad news continues to flood in from across the Middle East: Tunisia—the best hope for the Arab Spring—is unstable after political assassinations against leading non-Islamist politicians. While I don’t shed any tears over the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which for decades has inspired terrorism and hatred, at best Egypt faces years of Islamist insurgency and economic life support. The Syrian civil war goes from bad to worse. Bahrain remains tense and what Bahraini police occasion do with rubber bullets, their Saudi counterparts in the Eastern Province do with live ammunition. Iraq is not the basket case many assume, but it has faced a wave of renewed terrorism as bad as anything experienced prior to the U.S.-led surge.

Is there any good news or responsible governance coming from the region? Certainly, Morocco is navigating the waters of the Arab Spring fairly well, with the king seemingly sincere in his reform. So too is Oman, where Sultan Qaboos’s regime has always been an example of moderation and responsibility. But Qaboos has no heir apparent and he’s not going to have one, meaning that the Sultanate of Oman upon which the United States and so many moderate regional states have come to rely may have an uncertain future as Iran and other nearby powers will try to muck about in his succession in order to further their own illiberal interests.

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The bad news continues to flood in from across the Middle East: Tunisia—the best hope for the Arab Spring—is unstable after political assassinations against leading non-Islamist politicians. While I don’t shed any tears over the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which for decades has inspired terrorism and hatred, at best Egypt faces years of Islamist insurgency and economic life support. The Syrian civil war goes from bad to worse. Bahrain remains tense and what Bahraini police occasion do with rubber bullets, their Saudi counterparts in the Eastern Province do with live ammunition. Iraq is not the basket case many assume, but it has faced a wave of renewed terrorism as bad as anything experienced prior to the U.S.-led surge.

Is there any good news or responsible governance coming from the region? Certainly, Morocco is navigating the waters of the Arab Spring fairly well, with the king seemingly sincere in his reform. So too is Oman, where Sultan Qaboos’s regime has always been an example of moderation and responsibility. But Qaboos has no heir apparent and he’s not going to have one, meaning that the Sultanate of Oman upon which the United States and so many moderate regional states have come to rely may have an uncertain future as Iran and other nearby powers will try to muck about in his succession in order to further their own illiberal interests.

I had the privilege of visiting Kuwait last year, my first extended stay in the country for almost two decades. Kuwait has had some rough patches over recent years both because of changing demography but also because the government has pushed forward with real attempts at reform, encouraging real dynamism, and giving women a long-overdue vote. At the same time, the Kuwaitis have had to navigate dangerous sectarian trends as they find themselves wedged between Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. This, they seem to have done masterfully, even as trouble continues to brew on the horizon. At any rate, I’ve delved into the issue of sectarianism in Kuwait and Kuwait’s response to it in this detailed essay, for those who want reassurance that some states actually do try to temper incitement rather than rely on shallow populism for immediate political purposes.

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Re: What is Being Done to Protect Copts?

Last week I first raised the issue of Muslim Brotherhood attacks on Christian churches in Egypt as a way of expressing their anger about the military’s toppling of the government of Mohamed Morsi and the crackdown against Islamists in Cairo. Earlier today, our Michael Rubin again highlighted this appalling development and pointed out that the violence was so intense that services were cancelled at one monastery for the first time in 1,600 years. But also today, our Max Boot raised another aspect of this story as part of his argument that the United States should not support the military government in its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, a point on which both Michael and I disagree. As Max writes, though opponents of the Brotherhood have used the issue of their attacks on Coptic Christians to justify the military’s behavior, the new government hasn’t lifted a finger to help the victims of these assaults.

Egyptian Christians are angry about this and rightly so. Their lot was not easy under the Mubarak regime and the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule was perhaps even worse. As such, it is hardly surprising that the new power in Cairo has shown little interest in defending religious freedom. But even as we acknowledge one more flaw in a regime that we already knew was, at best, authoritarian in nature, that doesn’t justify an attitude of neutrality when it comes to the conflict between the military and the Brotherhood.

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Last week I first raised the issue of Muslim Brotherhood attacks on Christian churches in Egypt as a way of expressing their anger about the military’s toppling of the government of Mohamed Morsi and the crackdown against Islamists in Cairo. Earlier today, our Michael Rubin again highlighted this appalling development and pointed out that the violence was so intense that services were cancelled at one monastery for the first time in 1,600 years. But also today, our Max Boot raised another aspect of this story as part of his argument that the United States should not support the military government in its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, a point on which both Michael and I disagree. As Max writes, though opponents of the Brotherhood have used the issue of their attacks on Coptic Christians to justify the military’s behavior, the new government hasn’t lifted a finger to help the victims of these assaults.

Egyptian Christians are angry about this and rightly so. Their lot was not easy under the Mubarak regime and the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule was perhaps even worse. As such, it is hardly surprising that the new power in Cairo has shown little interest in defending religious freedom. But even as we acknowledge one more flaw in a regime that we already knew was, at best, authoritarian in nature, that doesn’t justify an attitude of neutrality when it comes to the conflict between the military and the Brotherhood.

The Christian minority are, unfortunately, the innocent bystanders in a growing conflict in which they stand little to gain. But the Brotherhood wasn’t wrong in surmising that Christians were, like the vast majority of Egyptians, outraged by Morsi’s push for total power that he would never have peacefully relinquished had the military failed to step in. Principled observers like frequent COMMENTARY contributor Elliott Abrams believe that the U.S. must run the risk of making Egyptians believe we favor the Brotherhood even if that is not the case in order to send a necessary statement about the military’s beastly behavior.

However, I believe the stakes in this conflict are such that neither the world nor the Egyptian people should labor under any doubts about the necessity of the Brotherhood’s complete defeat. As I wrote two weeks ago before the government began clearing out the Islamists’ armed camps in Cairo, this conflict is a zero-sum game in which there are only two choices. It may be possible to, as Max does, view the military’s attacks on the Islamists as morally equivalent to their assaults on churches and the Copts. Neither the military nor the Brotherhood present us with an attractive option in Egypt, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary that the Islamist movement be dealt a crippling blow from which it should never be allowed to recover.

The Islamists present a clear and present danger to non-Muslims, secular and liberal Muslims as well as the State of Israel and the West. Egyptian Christians may not like the military, but they still understand that they are far better off with them in power rather than Morsi and his crowd. Americans should be no less smart in their view of the conflict.

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What Is Being Done to Protect Copts?

The plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt has caught the attention of Americans, and understandably so—they face a wave of attacks against their businesses, homes, and churches. The culprits are radical Muslims who are eager to hit back at the government for a continuing crackdown but lack the courage or means to fight back directly against the security forces. So instead they are victimizing innocent Copts who are one of the groups in Egyptian society most opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and its goal of creating a more Islamicized society.

Yet there is more to this story than a simple narrative of reprehensible conduct by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other, more radical Islamist groups. The Egyptian military is eager to publicize attacks on Copts to delegitimize the Brotherhood as a pack of terrorists—a criticism that resounds especially loudly in majority-Christian countries such as the United States. But the army, while eager to denounce church burnings, is doing little to stop them.

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The plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt has caught the attention of Americans, and understandably so—they face a wave of attacks against their businesses, homes, and churches. The culprits are radical Muslims who are eager to hit back at the government for a continuing crackdown but lack the courage or means to fight back directly against the security forces. So instead they are victimizing innocent Copts who are one of the groups in Egyptian society most opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and its goal of creating a more Islamicized society.

Yet there is more to this story than a simple narrative of reprehensible conduct by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other, more radical Islamist groups. The Egyptian military is eager to publicize attacks on Copts to delegitimize the Brotherhood as a pack of terrorists—a criticism that resounds especially loudly in majority-Christian countries such as the United States. But the army, while eager to denounce church burnings, is doing little to stop them.

The Wall Street Journal reports that during a wave of anti-Christian attacks in the town of Minya, “security forces were nowhere to be seen,” and “in the days after no suspects appear to have been brought in,” even though “looting of the churches has continued.”

The Journal article quotes one “Christian who lives in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood,” who said “that as the local Bishop Moussa Church was under siege, he made several fruitless calls to the police. With no response from the fire station a few blocks away, either, he said, he and his neighbors put out fires with a garden hose.”

This is part of a long pattern with the Egyptian “deep state” which, in its statements abroad, condemns attacks on Christians but does little to stop them at home. This has bred widespread suspicion that the cynical generals are simply interested in generating fresh victims to justify their continuing crackdown on the Brotherhood.

The Coptic Christians feel used and ill-treated by the military regime. That’s something that American supporters of the generals should keep in mind before they use reprehensible attacks on the Copts to justify equally reprehensible attacks against demonstrators by the security forces.

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Just How Bad Has Egypt Become?

Much has been said about how the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements seek to drive Christians from the Middle East. Egyptian Copts are the last vestiges of an Egyptian civilization which predates the Islamic invasion and one of the last vestiges of what once was a far more pluralistic society now that Egypt is also almost completely Judenrein. The violence which the Muslim Brotherhood had directed toward Egypt’s Christians has been amply covered in stories about churches being burned and nuns being humiliated. But to put the situation in historic context, this story from the Egyptian Independent is worth reading:

Minya churches canceled on Sunday the second mass, holding only a brief one. Meanwhile, prayers did not take place at other churches which were attacked. Priest Selwanes Lotfy of the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram monastery in Degla, south of Minya, said, “We did not hold prayers in the monastery on Sunday for the first time in 1,600 years.”

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Much has been said about how the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements seek to drive Christians from the Middle East. Egyptian Copts are the last vestiges of an Egyptian civilization which predates the Islamic invasion and one of the last vestiges of what once was a far more pluralistic society now that Egypt is also almost completely Judenrein. The violence which the Muslim Brotherhood had directed toward Egypt’s Christians has been amply covered in stories about churches being burned and nuns being humiliated. But to put the situation in historic context, this story from the Egyptian Independent is worth reading:

Minya churches canceled on Sunday the second mass, holding only a brief one. Meanwhile, prayers did not take place at other churches which were attacked. Priest Selwanes Lotfy of the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram monastery in Degla, south of Minya, said, “We did not hold prayers in the monastery on Sunday for the first time in 1,600 years.”

It’s not every day you can say the situation is the worst it has been in 1,600 years. Under such circumstances, perhaps it’s time for the White House to choose a side rather than continue its dawdling. Let us hope when they choose, they recognize the Muslim Brotherhood for what it is rather than what its English speaking spokesmen tell credulous American officials and analysts.

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How Strong a Horse Is General Sisi?

Author and Weekly Standard senior editor Lee Smith set a high standard that few others have met with his seminal book The Strong Horse, about the political culture of the Arab world. So when Smith writes about the current conflict in Egypt to bitterly criticize military government leader General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, we should all pay attention. But while I think his evaluation of Sisi as “rash and dangerous” in a piece published in Time might be true, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the general presents a threat to his country’s peace with Israel or that he is taking Egypt down a path to destruction. As much as the coup government needs to be watched closely, his clear disagreement with those of us who have been urging Washington to recognize that the choice in Egypt is between the military and the Brotherhood seems to be off the point.

Last month, in the days before the military toppled Mohamed Morsi, Smith predicted in Tablet that sooner or later Egypt would launch a new war against Israel to distract its people from their domestic problems. His article in the Weekly Standard today cautioning supporters of Israel to worry more about Sisi than the Brotherhood seems to be an attempt to resurrect that thesis. But there is even less reason to believe him on that point today than there was then.

In the weeks since that Tablet article, Sisi has made it very clear he intends to wage war on the Muslim Brotherhood, not Israel. Though there is good reason to worry about Egypt’s future as the conflict with the Islamists heats up and its economic and societal woes only get worse, the idea that Sisi will strike Israel in order to avoid a civil war makes very little sense. Though anti-Semitism runs deep in Egyptian society, if there is one thing the Egyptian army has shown us in the 34 years since Anwar Sadat signed the peace treaty, it is that it has no intention of risking a certain military defeat against Israel that could have catastrophic consequences for its hold on the government in Cairo.

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Author and Weekly Standard senior editor Lee Smith set a high standard that few others have met with his seminal book The Strong Horse, about the political culture of the Arab world. So when Smith writes about the current conflict in Egypt to bitterly criticize military government leader General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, we should all pay attention. But while I think his evaluation of Sisi as “rash and dangerous” in a piece published in Time might be true, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the general presents a threat to his country’s peace with Israel or that he is taking Egypt down a path to destruction. As much as the coup government needs to be watched closely, his clear disagreement with those of us who have been urging Washington to recognize that the choice in Egypt is between the military and the Brotherhood seems to be off the point.

Last month, in the days before the military toppled Mohamed Morsi, Smith predicted in Tablet that sooner or later Egypt would launch a new war against Israel to distract its people from their domestic problems. His article in the Weekly Standard today cautioning supporters of Israel to worry more about Sisi than the Brotherhood seems to be an attempt to resurrect that thesis. But there is even less reason to believe him on that point today than there was then.

In the weeks since that Tablet article, Sisi has made it very clear he intends to wage war on the Muslim Brotherhood, not Israel. Though there is good reason to worry about Egypt’s future as the conflict with the Islamists heats up and its economic and societal woes only get worse, the idea that Sisi will strike Israel in order to avoid a civil war makes very little sense. Though anti-Semitism runs deep in Egyptian society, if there is one thing the Egyptian army has shown us in the 34 years since Anwar Sadat signed the peace treaty, it is that it has no intention of risking a certain military defeat against Israel that could have catastrophic consequences for its hold on the government in Cairo.

Smith is right to urge us to pay more attention to Sisi. Senator Lindsey Graham told the New York Times that the apparent caudillo of the post-coup government struck him as being “a little bit intoxicated by power.” Whether that shows that he wishes to emulate fellow military ruler Hosni Mubarak and play pharaoh or go further and try for the role of charismatic popular dictator in the mold of Gamal Abdul Nasser remains to be seen. But I think it’s reasonable to believe that this graduate of the U.S. Army War College is sufficiently educated in modern history to understand that military dictatorships rarely survive military defeats, especially when there is a viable opponent like the Brotherhood waiting for them to demonstrate their impotence.

The one guiding principle of the Egyptian military since it avoided another debacle in the 1973 Yom Kippur War only by the grace of Soviet threats and Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy was to never again risk a whipping at the hands of Israel. Sadat switched sides in the Cold War to escape from the trap Russian antagonism toward the U.S. and Israel had forced his country into. In exchange for embracing America and making peace with Israel, Egypt got a hefty annual bribe in the form of U.S. aid that went mostly toward propping up the military. The shiny toys it purchased from the U.S. helped solidify its rule. There has never been even a hint that any of the military owners of those planes and tanks have even dreamed of risking them by employing them in a confrontation with Israel that everyone knows would end in utter defeat for Egypt. That’s even truer today now that the military is finally being called upon to fire some weapons in anger, albeit against domestic Islamist foes rather than the traditional Zionist enemy.

While Smith attempts to argue in the Standard that there is a split between American friends of Israel who have urged Washington to back the military and an Israeli government that has kept to a wise official silence on the question, I see no evidence that there is any disagreement here. In fact, as the New York Times reported earlier this week, although it is rightly issuing no statements, Israel is actually making a major diplomatic push to persuade both the U.S. and Europe not to abandon Sisi in a fit of righteous anger about the violence in Cairo.

While, as Smith pointed out in his book, dictators of failed states like Egypt have always sought to export the violence brewing inside their countries, maintaining one’s status as the “strong horse” also involves knowing which fights to pick. In this case, only a suicidal madman would contemplate engaging an untested and generally lightly regarded fighting force like the Egyptian Army in a war with the region’s best military. Nasser may have survived his defeats in 1956 (courtesy of Dwight Eisenhower) and 1967 (by blaming the fiasco on the myth of U.S. involvement in the Six-Day War), but surely Sisi understands that he wouldn’t be as lucky. Nor would many of his fellow generals, who form his main constituency of the moment, agree to such folly. The evidence of close cooperation between the Egyptian military and Israel in repressing outbreaks of terror in the Sinai in the last month and its hostility to the Gaza enclave run by the Brotherhood’s Hamas allies further debunks the notion that Sisi would attack the Jewish state.

Being the “strong horse” in Egypt right now means controlling the streets of Cairo and beating the Brotherhood into submission. Can he succeed? Doubts on that score are reasonable. But the widespread assumption of Sisi’s critics that we are in for an Egyptian rerun of the bloody Algerian civil war of the 1990s may not be right. Egypt is a very different place than Algeria. When the Algerian military ousted an Islamist party from government launching a civil war, that was a country that had gone through a terrorist insurgency only 30 years earlier during the struggle for independence against France. Egypt has never undergone such a war and there is no indication that most Egyptians (the vast majority of whom seem to have approved of the coup) would tolerate one. As Smith points out, the Brotherhood has survived more than 80 years of repression, but it is unprepared for war. By taking the Machiavellian tactic of crushing opponents, Sisi may have undertaken the sort of pre-emptive strike that will make an Algerian-style conflict unlikely.

Smith may consider support for the coup to be morally repugnant, but it is hard to find any sensible person who actually thinks the Brotherhood government was an expression of genuine democracy. Right now there isn’t much doubt that Sisi is preferable to the Brotherhood.

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Discrediting the Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt is rarely just about Egypt. So a full conversation about whether to sustain American aid to the military government currently in power in Cairo has to include a widening of the scope to the broader Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, which the army deposed in a coup and the recent crackdown, is not just another domestic political party, so its defeat is not just a domestic concern. The Brotherhood represents the recent ascendancy of pan-Islamism that threatens to destabilize any non-Islamist government in the region.

A perfect example of that comes today from Reuters, which reports that Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, is foundering now that its ally next door is out of power. Hamas’s relationship with its Iranian patron was strained by the civil war in Syria, which Iran and its proxies joined on the side of Bashar al-Assad, putting them at ideological odds with Hamas. The Gaza-based terrorist group therefore had arguably the most to lose with the Brotherhood’s exit from power in Egypt.

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Egypt is rarely just about Egypt. So a full conversation about whether to sustain American aid to the military government currently in power in Cairo has to include a widening of the scope to the broader Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, which the army deposed in a coup and the recent crackdown, is not just another domestic political party, so its defeat is not just a domestic concern. The Brotherhood represents the recent ascendancy of pan-Islamism that threatens to destabilize any non-Islamist government in the region.

A perfect example of that comes today from Reuters, which reports that Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, is foundering now that its ally next door is out of power. Hamas’s relationship with its Iranian patron was strained by the civil war in Syria, which Iran and its proxies joined on the side of Bashar al-Assad, putting them at ideological odds with Hamas. The Gaza-based terrorist group therefore had arguably the most to lose with the Brotherhood’s exit from power in Egypt.

A weakened Brotherhood means a weakened Hamas, which means a slightly strengthened Fatah in the West Bank, which benefits the peace process and keeps American influence in the region active while Iran struggles to maintain its ability to make mischief in the Palestinian territories while simultaneously distracted in Syria. Additionally, the Reuters story notes that Hamas was relying on funding from the Qatari emir, but the emir’s heir does not seem to be nearly as interested in doling out cash to Hamas. The story also quotes an Israeli analyst arguing that Hamas will have to swallow some of its pride–and principles–to go crawling back to Iran:

Israeli analyst Yaari thought Iran would exact a price for welcoming Hamas back into the fold. “It will require them to stop opposing Assad and stop any criticism of Hezbollah’s intervention (in Syria) and Iranian support of Assad,” he said.

Even so, with the Brotherhood out of power in Egypt Hamas will have far more difficulty smuggling Iranian-funded weapons into the Gaza Strip. The next question, then, is: How much trouble is the Brotherhood in, at least in Egypt? The Washington Post argues today that it is facing “what many are describing as the worst crisis to confront Egypt’s 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood.”

The primary reason seems to be that the Brotherhood cannot simply go back to its pre-Arab Spring role. Before the presidency of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the organization was an underground opposition network that offered a religious alternative to the Mubarak police state. But most importantly, it offered something to the non-Islamists as well. As the Post explains:

The Brotherhood is more than a political or religious group. It has been almost a shadow state in modern Egypt, winning over supporters over the decades with a vast network of charitable services, including dental clinics and thrift shops. It is the “mother of all Islamist movements,” in the words of Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Doha Center, having spawned dozens of related groups worldwide since its founding in 1928.

Throughout its history, the Brotherhood has repeatedly clashed with Egypt’s authoritarian governments, enduring arrests, torture and imprisonment. But what’s different now, analysts say, is that it’s battling not only a military-backed government but also the disdain of a broad swath of society. Many Egyptians are irate at Morsi for the country’s economic slide and the rise in crime during his one-year rule. Others complain that the Brotherhood tried to grab power by excluding minority political groups and trying to insulate its decisions from judicial review.

“It’s the first time to see the Muslim Brotherhood in conflict not only with the state — but with the whole of the state, [including] the bureaucracy, and the political elite, and an important part of society. It’s not a limited confrontation,” Rashwan said.

Gaining authority over the most significant and populous Arab country presented the Brotherhood with a classic high-risk, high-reward opportunity. The reward was obvious–power, influence, a certain degree of regional hegemony if not over neighboring governments then over their chief domestic opposition. The risk was that if it didn’t work out, it would not be so simple to go back to the way things were.

In Cairo, it did not work out. The Brotherhood in opposition was able to provide services to a public greatly in need of them, especially since Mubarak’s reign was marked by empty promises of economic reform. But then the Brotherhood came to power and turned its totalitarian oppression on the entire state.

If an Egyptian considered himself an atheist and a socialist, but only had access to dental care because of the Brotherhood, he was likely to still consider the Brotherhood an acceptable, and possibly preferable, alternative to the Egyptian state. That is no longer the case, and it explains why the Brotherhood, whose defeat would greatly benefit the West, is on the ropes.

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Immaturity Over Realpolitik for Obama

An Egyptian court’s decision to order the release of former dictator Hosni Mubarak on the same day the new government arrested the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood may be seen as the last straw for the Obama administration. After weeks of dithering as it sought to balance America’s obvious interest in seeing the Muslim Brotherhood defeated with the desire to look as if we cared about the cause of democracy, Washington appears on the brink of cutting all aid to Cairo to demonstrate its anger over events there. But this, as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens so aptly put it today, is an “attitude,” not a policy.

It is also especially galling for this White House to be preening on Egypt in this manner because it was Obama who de-prioritized his predecessor’s effort to promote democracy in Egypt. Over the past five years, this administration drifted aimlessly from a position of strong support for Mubarak to one that embraced his Muslim Brotherhood successor Mohamed Morsi. Now that the military is back in charge, the president finds that authoritarians are no longer to his taste. Some have criticized those of us who have reminded Obama that his choice is between the military and the Brotherhood, not democracy, as practicing a cynical brand of realpolitik. But rather than a principled stand, this latest twist in U.S. policy that threatens, as I wrote yesterday, to reverse America’s landmark achievement of separating Egypt from its Soviet patrons, is a fit of immaturity not principle.

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An Egyptian court’s decision to order the release of former dictator Hosni Mubarak on the same day the new government arrested the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood may be seen as the last straw for the Obama administration. After weeks of dithering as it sought to balance America’s obvious interest in seeing the Muslim Brotherhood defeated with the desire to look as if we cared about the cause of democracy, Washington appears on the brink of cutting all aid to Cairo to demonstrate its anger over events there. But this, as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens so aptly put it today, is an “attitude,” not a policy.

It is also especially galling for this White House to be preening on Egypt in this manner because it was Obama who de-prioritized his predecessor’s effort to promote democracy in Egypt. Over the past five years, this administration drifted aimlessly from a position of strong support for Mubarak to one that embraced his Muslim Brotherhood successor Mohamed Morsi. Now that the military is back in charge, the president finds that authoritarians are no longer to his taste. Some have criticized those of us who have reminded Obama that his choice is between the military and the Brotherhood, not democracy, as practicing a cynical brand of realpolitik. But rather than a principled stand, this latest twist in U.S. policy that threatens, as I wrote yesterday, to reverse America’s landmark achievement of separating Egypt from its Soviet patrons, is a fit of immaturity not principle.

It should be conceded that the release of Mubarak at the very moment that it is struggling to maintain support in the West is, at the very least, bad optics for the new government. Mubarak has been held more or less at the behest of the Brotherhood government in the last year after some of the court cases against him collapsed, but the legal details don’t cancel out the fact that there is little doubt that he was a dictator who ordered the death of many opponents. In his defense, the idea that the Islamist totalitarians of the Brotherhood or the military have any standing to judge him is absurd. But keeping in jail and out of sight would have been the smart thing to do.

In fact his release may be a signal that coup leader Gen. Sisi and his regime have lost any hope of winning over Obama and the Europeans and are prepared to rely on the Saudis (who have promised to make good on any aid money withheld by the United States) or to shop for new friends abroad such as the Russians rather than bend to America’s feckless demands.

The president’s stand might have some coherence if it were part of a coherent worldview. But, of course, Obama had already discarded the Bush pro-democracy agenda when he took office as a neo-conservative heresy that needed to be replaced by a more realist approach. Yet now that he is faced with the necessity to put his realistic principles to the test in order to protect a vital Arab country from falling into the hands of Islamists or, worse yet, joining Syria as Vladimir Putin’s allies, the president has discovered a new interest in democracy.

The president had already displayed his contempt for the cause of Egyptian freedom during the year he embraced Morsi, so to pose now as its defender when to do so will be seen by Egyptians as sympathy for a movement most despise is more than hypocritical. Even Mubarak’s release does not offset the fact that what is at stake in Egypt is an effort to ensure that a despotic Islamist movement never gets another chance to rule. Having been offered a chance to choose between demonstrating a grasp of American interests and an immature response, the president has chosen the latter. Given the possibly serious consequences of such a decision, this may be something that Obama’s successors will be dealing with for many years to come. 

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The Difference Between Syria and Egypt

For many, the Egyptian army’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is reminiscent of both Muammar Gaddafi’s savagery in Libya and of the start of the civil war in Egypt. It is neither. While the Egyptian government—and the Muslim Brotherhood—have used live ammunition against each other in the streets with predictable consequences, the fighting remains largely confined to public spaces where the two sides meet in battle. There is not as yet, thankfully, evidence of the death squads which go through villages and disappear or simply execute those suspected of backing the other side.

There are major differences between the conflict in Egypt and that in Syria:

For many, the Egyptian army’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is reminiscent of both Muammar Gaddafi’s savagery in Libya and of the start of the civil war in Egypt. It is neither. While the Egyptian government—and the Muslim Brotherhood—have used live ammunition against each other in the streets with predictable consequences, the fighting remains largely confined to public spaces where the two sides meet in battle. There is not as yet, thankfully, evidence of the death squads which go through villages and disappear or simply execute those suspected of backing the other side.

There are major differences between the conflict in Egypt and that in Syria:

  • In neither country has the violence been random. Syrian forces—both government and opposition—have readily engaged in ethnic and sectarian cleansing to carve out cantons for themselves. That is not the case in Egypt, where the two sides have fought openly in the streets. The closest Egypt comes is to the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Christians for no other reasons than sheer religious and ideological spite.
  • While the Egyptian security forces have cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood in the streets and at demonstrations, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime sought to crush dissent by targeting children. The case of Hamza Alial-Khateeb really was the point of no return: The regime thought that it could curtail political opposition among parents if it targeted their children; instead, it crossed the point of no return. Syrians are likely to take far more seriously the videos of Hamza’s brutalized body rather than Secretary of State John Kerry’s calls for compromise. The Egyptian military, to its credit, has not hunted down and killed children for the sake of killing children.

Egypt may face an insurgency for years to come, but they should no more compromise with the Muslim Brotherhood than should the United States compromise with Hamas, Hezbollah, or al-Qaeda. What is happening in Egypt is tragic, but this conflict has been brewing for quite some time and facile demands for diplomacy or compromise can do more harm than good. Tahrir is not Tiananmen, and Egypt is not Syria. Journalists too often look for analogies, but they should do so with care. Picking the wrong analogy can lead to dangerously flawed policy.

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