We won’t know the outcome of the referendum on Egypt’s proposed new constitution that will strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on power until after next weekend’s second round of voting. But those betting on the Brotherhood not ensuring that there will be a majority for its confirmation or accepting a negative vote if one is allowed haven’t been paying much attention to the way the group operates or thinks. In the less than two years since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood has moved to seize total power, the latest move coming when President Mohamed Morsi effectively assumed powers comparable to those held by the now imprisoned dictator. Though there has been a courageous effort by the judiciary as well as groups of citizens to stop the Brotherhood, the Islamists have combined ruthless suppression of dissent—including killings of demonstrators that ought in principle to render Morsi vulnerable to the same charges that he is pressing against Mubarak—with a clever mobilization of party cadres to keep their opponents off balance and on the defensive.
This rapid and efficient consolidation of Islamist hegemony in Cairo took a lot of observers by surprise. Many of us had some hope that the Arab Spring would bring democracy to an Arab world where it is largely unknown. But by now only those unwilling to face reality are still pretending the Brotherhood are just a bunch of Muslim democrats. Not surprisingly, Tom Friedman, the New York Times op-ed page’s resident Middle East expert, is among that group. In a column that is obtuse even by his standards, Friedman speculates that it is just as likely that Egypt will wind up a functioning multi-ethnic democracy like India as a dysfunctional Islamic state like Pakistan. It says a lot about the Times these days that such a foolish and ignorant column is what passes for foreign policy expertise at the paper. But the real problem here is not just one more dumb Times column but the fact that Friedman’s rosy view of the Brotherhood’s democratic potential dovetails with the Obama administration’s ill conceived embrace of the Morsi government.
If there is anything that the current situation in Egypt teaches, it is how hard it is to create a functioning liberal democracy after decades of oppression. It is, in fact, a lot harder than simply having an election. Because after the voting, it is imperative for the winners to show respect for the losers and not simply try to consolidate all power in their own hands while trying to crush the opposition.
By that standard, Mohamed Morsi is failing as Egypt’s new president. In recent weeks he has tried to claim for himself powers that are above even judicial review, and now he is trying to ram through a new constitution, which is to be voted on mere weeks after being drafted in a secretive process declared invalid by the opposition. When Egyptians opposed to this power grab have taken to the streets they have been met by thuggish Muslim Brotherhood supporters and violence has broken out.
In the third presidential debate, President Obama highlighted his administration’s policy toward Egypt to buttress his foreign policy legacy. He said: “In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.” But in fact at the time, the latter statement wasn’t true, and by now the former appears to have evaporated as well. In June, months before Obama bragged about Egyptians’ opinion of the U.S., Pew released the findings of its poll on global attitudes toward America. It found that opinion of the U.S. in the age of Obama had returned to its low point, and that Egyptians overwhelmingly, according to Pew, wanted Obama to be a one-term president.
It is unlikely that with the president’s virtual silence over Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s power grab those numbers will improve much. In the latest of several days of protesting, Egyptians chanted at Morsi: “Shave your beard, show your disgrace, you will find that you have Mubarak’s face!” Funny, yes–but it shouldn’t be disregarded as a joke. In fact, as the realist approach to the region lay in ruins around the Middle East, the Obama administration may be making the very same blunders in pursuit of the mirage of stability in the desert.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has had quite a week. He helped broker a cease-fire between his Hamas ally and Israel to the acclaim of the international community as well as the United States and his new friend President Obama. He followed that triumph up by issuing new decrees that effectively give him dictatorial powers over Egypt. In less than year in office, Morsi has amassed as much power as Hosni Mubarak had in his time in office as the country’s strongman and he has done it while getting closer to the United States rather than having his Islamist regime being condemned or isolated by Washington.
The full implications of Morsi’s ascendency are not yet apparent. But we can draw a few rather obvious conclusions from these events. The first is this makes the region a much more dangerous place and peace even more unlikely. the second is that the much ballyhooed Arab Spring turned out to be an Islamist triumph, not an opening for democracy. And third, and perhaps most disconcerting for Americans, it looks like the Obama administration has shown itself again to be a band of hopeless amateurs when it comes to the Middle East. While President Obama shouldn’t be blamed for toppling Mubarak, this episode is more proof of the gap between his foreign policy instincts and a rational defense of American interests.
For days, southern Israel was pounded by close to 200 rockets fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza. This morning, the Islamist terrorist group got its answer when the Israel Defense Forces launched a series of retaliatory strikes on its military leadership. Ahmed al-Jabari, the group’s top commander, was killed in an airstrike on his car as it drove down a Gaza street. The killing of al-Jabari was just one of 20 different attacks on Hamas operatives in an effort intended to both decapitate its terrorist hierarchy as well as to send a message to the Gaza regime that if it thinks it can rain down missiles on Israel with impunity, it has made a terrible miscalculation.
The Israeli counter-attack after the days of Hamas missile fire is clearly an attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to halt the assaults on his country without having to resort to an invasion of Gaza. While Israel can expect the world to condemn its measures of self-defense, Netanyahu cannot allow a return to the situation prior to the last IDF offensive into Gaza four years ago, when Hamas acted as if it thought there was no way for Israel to stop the missile fire on its borders. It remains to be seen whether, after another surge of rocket fire today following al-Jabari’s death, Hamas will take the hint and stand down.
But either way, these events effectively debunk the idea that Hamas has embraced non-violence and that the United States should reach out to it to join peace negotiations. That’s a narrative that was increasingly being promoted by those who sought to use the Obama administration’s decision to treat the new Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt with kid gloves. The decision over the past weekend by the Brotherhood’s Hamas allies to set in motion the events that threaten to plunge the region into a new round of deadly violence is also a reminder to Washington that it should be paying more attention to the security needs of its Israeli ally and less to what its new friends in Cairo are saying.
Shortly before protestors poured into the streets of Cairo’s Tahrir Square to put the final nail into the coffin of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the headline on the Presidential Daily Brief produced by the Central Intelligence Agency for the president was, according to word among administration officials, something to the effect of “Tunisian Unrest Unlikely to Spread to Egypt.”
It is no secret that the Arab Spring uprisings took not only the United States by surprise, but also the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamists as well. The Muslim Brotherhood filled the vacuum but, in recent days, the radicals appear to be unfurling a deliberate plan to whip up fervor and seize the initiative. The Bolsheviks are now supplanting the Mensheviks. This, too, appears to have caught the CIA and many of our diplomats stationed in the Middle East by surprise. It shouldn’t have: During the Iranian crisis 33-years ago, radicals seized the US Embassy as much to rally the hardliners for domestic reasons as they did out of animus toward the United States.
The Arab Spring has made reporters understandably excitable at the first sign of popular discontent in the Arab world, especially in places previously unaffected by the revolutionary wave. And so the Associated Press report out of Hebron yesterday took the step of repeating for readers just how unprecedented the Palestinian anti-government protests were. It began with this sentence: “Palestinian demonstrators fed up with high prices and unpaid salaries shuttered shops, halted traffic with burning tires and clashed with riot police in demonstrations across the West Bank on Monday— the largest show of popular discontent with the Palestinian Authority in its 18-year existence.”
Seven paragraphs later, the reporters made explicit the comparison, and in an attempt to ward off the dismissal of the analogy repeated again the rarity factor at work here: “The unrest was reminiscent of the mass demonstrations of the Arab Spring that topped aging dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and sparked civil war in Syria. While there is no sign that the protests are approaching that level, they nonetheless are the largest show of popular discontent with the governing Palestinian Authority in its 18-year history.” Yes, the AP is right: the protests have reached unprecedented levels. But the more interesting aspects of the public unrest are not the parallels with the Arab Spring, but the contrasts.
Those watching the Democratic National Convention this week were subjected to a feedback loop of angry denunciations of Republicans for what we were told was their “war on women.” But if you want to see what a real war on women looks like as opposed to a political disagreement about abortion or whether Catholic institutions should be forced to pay for services, like contraception, that offend their faith, you need to look elsewhere. As the New York Times reports, despite their reassurances given to gullible Western reporters and the Obama administration, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is going full speed ahead with its campaign to impose its Islamist social agenda on the nation. And that agenda isn’t abortion or free contraceptives but a full-blown attempt to reverse the tenuous advances women made toward equality under the Mubarak regime.
Given the Muslim Brotherhood’s increasingly tight grip on the reins of power in Cairo this is not a theoretical question but one of vital importance for the future of the most populous Arab country. The Brotherhood says its priority is reviving the country’s economy and has convinced the Obama administration to forgive $1 billion in debt that they owe the United States and Western nations. As Max wrote earlier this week, this makes sense from the point of view of encouraging stability and seeking to encourage prosperity that will make the country less vulnerable to extremists. But we shouldn’t underestimate the Brotherhood’s determination to eventually wipe out secularism. Even more to the point, it seeks to gain political strength by promoting female subservience.
I am as skeptical as anyone of the intentions of the new Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt led by Mohamed Morsi. From the appearance of a veiled newscaster on Egyptian state television to the attempted remilitarization of the Sinai, there are certainly troubling signs of what the new regime intends. But there are also some positive signs—from Morsi’s interest in free-market reforms to the offensive he ordered in the Sinai against militants who attacked Egyptian outposts and his willingness to stick it in the face of his Iranian hosts by backing the Syrian revolt while on a visit to Tehran. It is simply too soon to tell how much of a threat—or not—the new Egypt will be.
Nevertheless the Obama administration is right to extend roughly a billion dollars in debt forgiveness to Egypt and to support a new IMF loan that could approach five billion dollars.
Almost a decade ago, former Iranian literature professor Jalal Matini penned a piece in the U.S.-based, Persian language journal Iranshenasi, entitled, “The Most Truthful Individual in Recent History.” It was a study of Ayatollah Khomeini’s statements prior to seizing power, and his actions afterwards.
Shortly after, Iranian.com, an online Iranian-interest website, translated key portions of the article, only a few examples of which I reproduce here:
Last week’s terror attack on Egyptian army troops by jihadists whose ultimate aim was to kill Israelis provoked an unexpectedly harsh reaction from Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The chaos in the Sinai is the direct result of the revolution that brought down the Mubarak regime. The Hamas government looked to benefit from the triumph of their Muslim Brotherhood allies, but the embarrassing slaughter of Egyptians by anti-Israel terrorists has led the new government in Cairo to shut down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. The prospect of increased security cooperation between Egypt and the United States is slightly encouraging, though Israel’s exclusion from talks concerning its border is both spiteful and foolish.
But while the crackdown in the Sinai and along the border with Gaza may be a hopeful sign the new Egyptian government is unwilling to be dragged into conflict with Israel by the Palestinians, the real news in the aftermath of the shooting is very bad indeed. Morsi’s sacking of Egypt’s intelligence chief (who ignored warnings from Israel about a possible terror attack) is one thing, but the decision of the Egyptian leader to fire two of the country’s leading generals is more than just a personnel shuffle. If Morsi has assumed power of the country’s military, the notion that the army would or could act as a brake on the Muslim Brotherhood has been shown to be a myth. His firing of Egypt’s defense minister and the army chief of staff makes it clear the Brotherhood is now completely in control of the country. This calls into question not just the future of regional stability but the Obama administration’s equivocal attitude toward the Brotherhood’s push to power.
As I noted yesterday, the Muslim Brotherhood is busily propagating conspiracy theories about Israeli guilt for Sunday’s terror attack in Sinai, which killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. But there’s a bright side to this story: For the first time ever, many Egyptians aren’t buying it.
True, dozens of demonstrators converged on the Israeli ambassador’s house Monday to demand his expulsion, asserting that Israel was to blame. But the real mob scene occurred at the slain soldiers’ funerals – where crowds chanted slogans denouncing not Israel, but the Muslim Brotherhood, and physically attacked a representative of the Brotherhood-led government, Prime Minister Hesham Kandil.
Nor did the media blindly regurgitate the usual conspiracy theories of Israeli guilt: They duly reported the Egyptian military’s assertion that the attack was perpetrated by terrorists from Sinai aided by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. Prominent Egyptian commentators even criticized the army for ignoring the intelligence warning Israel had shared, and President Mohammed Morsi for pardoning thousands of radical Islamists and freeing them from jail. And both in television interviews and on social media sites, many ordinary Egyptians blamed the attack not on Israel, but on Morsi, for having reopened the Gaza-Egypt border.
If anyone still harbored illusions that power would moderate the Muslim Brotherhood, Sunday’s attack in Sinai should have shattered it. Heavily armed jihadis stormed an Egyptian army outpost, slaughtered 16 Egyptian solders, stole two APCs and raced toward the Israeli border, where the Israeli army finally stopped them. As Jonathan optimistically wrote yesterday, this is one crime “that cannot be blamed on Israel.”
Except, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood proceeded to do exactly that: As the Jerusalem Post reported, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said on its website that the attack ‘can be attributed to Mossad’ and was an attempt to thwart” Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s man in Cairo.
According to the Brotherhood statement, the Mossad “has been seeking to abort the revolution since its inception and the proof of this is that it gave instructions to its Zionist citizens in Sinai to depart immediately a few days ago.” The group added: “(It) also draws our attention to the fact that our forces in Sinai are not enough to protect it and our borders, which makes it imperative to review clauses in the signed agreement between us and the Zionist entity.”
Huma Abedin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, has been in the news recently as her husband, the disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, tries to worm his way back into the public eye. Weiner paraded Abedin and their six-month-old infant before the cameras of People magazine this week as part of a not-so-subtle campaign to rehabilitate himself. But Abedin has other worries besides those associated with her husband. She was singled out in a letter sent by Rep. Michele Bachmann and four members of Congress that highlighted the ties between her family and the Muslim Brotherhood. The letter asked for the State Department’s Inspector General to conduct an investigation into whether Abedin and others had wrongly influenced American policy to show favor to the Islamist group that is battling for power in Egypt. That prompted a furious response from Sen. John McCain, who blasted Bachmann on the floor of the Senate. McCain described Abedin as a friend and said attacks on her “character, reputation and patriotism” were unwarranted and unfair.
McCain’s counterattack on behalf of Abedin is being echoed throughout the mainstream press. The New York Times editorial page today described Bachmann’s charges as a “crackpot allegation of a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to infiltrate the government.” The Boston Globe’s Juliette Kayeem wrote in a column that the mention of Abedin’s mother was a new take on an old theme, a “Manchurian Mom.” While McCain’s speech centered on a defense of Abedin, both pieces poured scorn on the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood was worth worrying about or whether a discussion of the State Department’s conduct vis-à-vis the organization was worthy of scrutiny. The whole thing, they said, was merely a new front in an effort to single out Muslim-Americans and subject them to discrimination.
Prejudice against Muslims is wrong, and conspiracy theories are a noxious weed in political discourse. Those who think the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the State Department are probably wrong, as there is no shortage of diplomats and consultants who foolishly think the United States should be engaging with the Islamist group without any of them being part of a plot. But if the Bachmann letter is used as an excuse to brand as McCarthyism any effort to discuss a possible shift in U.S. policy toward appeasing Islamist groups, that would be a mistake.
When the Arab Spring bug caught on in Egypt, in late January 2011, commentators rushed to explain that the Tahrir Square crowd was hip and Western, secular and “facebooked.” Never mind the rape of a Western journalist, Lara Logan, by the hip and Western revolutionaries – a fate visited upon other female journalists during the following months (see here and here). Everyone looked around, and the Muslim Brotherhood was nowhere to be seen.
This fact, alone, seems to have fed the facile illusion that the Brotherhood could not hijack the initial Twitter moment of the Egyptian revolt against Hosni Mubarak.
Since then, at each turn of the road, as the Muslim Brotherhood gradually hijacked the Egyptian transition, commentators told us there was no need to worry. The Muslim Brotherhood would only contest a small number of seats (they did not); they would not have a candidate of their own for the presidency (they did); and their candidate was moderate (he wasn’t).
The victory of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi in the Egyptian presidential election has presented the United States with an interesting dilemma. After more than a year of vacillating between support for democratic change in the Arab world and a willingness to leave authoritarians in place, Morsi’s triumph represents what many in the Obama administration may think is a fresh opportunity to have an impact on the changing situation in the Middle East. They need to resist it.
As Jackson Diehl noted in today’s Washington Post, President Obama has much to answer for in the way his waffling between support for democracy and authoritarians contributed to the way the Arab Spring became a disaster for both the peoples of the Middle East and the United States: Though it is not likely that his enormous self-regard will allow him to accept that blame, there’s little doubt that the president wants very much to have an impact on events in Egypt and throughout the region even if he prefers to “lead from behind” in the tricky conflicts within each nation. It should be remembered that in May of 2011 he devoted most of a speech on the Middle East policy to his views on the Arab Spring, though it is best remembered for the closing section in which he ambushed Israel. The Arab world cared little for the president’s ineffectual and ultimately irrelevant views about their future, but what is most worrisome about the current situation is that the president may view Morsi’s election as a second chance to influence events in Egypt.
Many in the Obama administration may have heaved a sigh of relief this morning when Egypt’s election commission declared Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi the winner of the country’s presidential election. There were justifiable fears that the Egyptian military would complete the coup d’état it began when the country’s high court tossed the Islamist-controlled parliament out of office by stealing the presidential contest for its preferred candidate. By choosing to attempt to live with the Brotherhood rather than attempt to destroy it, the army may have avoided a bloody civil war that would have drowned Egypt in blood and destabilized the region even further.
But as much as Washington is relieved that the next stage of life in post-Mubarak Egypt will not be one in which the military rules alone, President Obama must resist the impulse to embrace Morsi or to behave in any manner that might lend support to the Brotherhood leader in the power struggle in Cairo that will undoubtedly ensue. As much as the United States should support the principle of democracy, Morsi and his party are no apostles of freedom. Though worries about the U.S. being tainted by association with a military who wishes to perpetuate authoritarian rule are well founded, the danger from a rising tide of Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring is far more dangerous to American interests.
Egypt has had quite a wild ride since the Tahrir Square protests ousted longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Ever since, the carousel of Egyptian politics has gyrated wildly, but it seems it was spinning in a circle the whole time. Far from seeing the inauguration of a new democracy, we appear to be witnessing the transition from rule by one former general to collective rule by a bunch of active-duty generals. Egypt seems to be moving in the direction of pre-reform Burma–even the names of the two ruling juntas are remarkably similar and sinister: SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) in Egypt; SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) in Burma.
In both cases, the generals are claiming to save the people from the messy untidiness of democracy. In Egypt, that case has been somewhat strengthened by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood and hard-line Salafists won the vast majority of parliamentary seats and that a Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won this weekend’s presidential election. Even before the presidential results had been announced, the SCAF had dissolved parliament and instituted decrees that limit the new president’s power to largely ceremonial functions. All that remains to be seen is how the Brotherhood–the largest and most powerful non-governmental organization in Egypt–will react. Will the generals’ actions be quietly accepted, as they were in Turkey in 1980, or will they spark a bloody civil war, as they did in Algeria in 1992? Regardless, it is a tragedy that the will of the Egyptian people, who plainly long for Western-style democracy and not an Iranian-style theocracy or a sclerotic police state, is being thwarted.
For the past year, many in the United States and Israel have mourned the toppling of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Many of the same people who lamented his fall were quick to point out he was a corrupt despot who turned his country’s treaty with Israel into a “cold peace.” But once it became clear the main beneficiaries of the Arab Spring protests would not be the tiny faction of Egyptian liberals but the Muslim Brotherhood, the demise of a man who was once rightly derided for never losing an opportunity to make mischief at Israel’s expense was treated as a calamity. Yet, with today’s decision by Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court that dissolved the parliament that was elected in the aftermath of the change in regime, those who longed for a Mubarak rerun may get their wish. Let’s see if they like the result any better than the Brotherhood’s power grab via elections.
As Michael wrote earlier today, the Egyptian military may be seeking to emulate the example of Algeria, where in 1991 an election victory by Islamists was overturned by the government, leading to a long and bloody civil war. If, as he points out, that means a conflict that will prevent the Brotherhood from attaining total power in Cairo, it may be worth the chaos and suffering that will ensue from the court’s decision. But those hoping presidential candidate Ahmid Shafik, a Mubarak-era retread, in combination with the Egyptian military will put down the Brotherhood, should be careful what they wish for. As awful as the prospect of the election of an Brotherhood president along with the deposed parliament might be, Israelis should be extremely wary about the possibility of a civil war taking place next door in Egypt.
What does Sarah Palin have in common with the Muslim Brotherhood? The answer to that question is, of course, absolutely nothing. But don’t tell myriad pundits and academics that. Cheap analogies between the Tea Party and al-Qaeda, Sarah Palin and the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Taliban and the Christian Right have become a bit too commonplace for comfort among those who are supposed to inform public debate or provide expertise. Politicization, intolerance for opposing views, and false moral equivalence each suggest a profound ignorance of what groups like the Taliban and Muslim Brotherhood stand for.
Here are just a few examples:
- MSNBC’s Chris Matthews: “So the Muslim Brotherhood has a parallel role here with the Tea Party?”
- John Esposito, Georgetown University: “The political Salafis believe that they have a true vision of Islam and that their version of religion is the one that they practice and the one that other people should practice too in their personal lives. Moreover, they are working to implement this vision in society as a whole… What you see in Christianity is that you have some very conservative Christians, you see them in the U.S. for example, many of them very conservative in their personal lives, and then there is the Christian Right in the U.S. that is involved in politics, another kind of Christianity that tries to impose its own will on other people.”
- Princeton University’s Gregory D. Johnsen: “comparing [Tawakkol] Karman to [hardline Islamist Abdul Majid al-] Zindani is something akin to making Colin Powell responsible for what Sarah Palin says.”
- Oxford University’s Richard Dawkins: “The fundamentalist Christian Right is America’s Taliban.”
- University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole: “The mainstream Republican Party’s view on many social issues thus resembles that of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the Muslim Brotherhood and related parties in the Muslim world far more than it does the ‘conservative’ parties of Scandinavia and continental Europe.”
- And, Juan Cole, again: “Is Sarah Palin America’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? The two differ in many key respects, of course, but it is remarkable how similar they are. There are uncanny parallels in their biographies, their domestic politics and the way they present themselves — even in their rocky relationships with party elders.”
- Cher: “We talk about how radical Muslims take away the Rights of their woman, but HOW CAN WE LET These RW [right wing American] Misogynistic Cretins take away.”
- Occasional Nation contributor David Lindorff: “But John Walker Lindh… is not the real American Taliban. That title surely belongs to our new Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.”
- Filmmaker Michael Moore: Appearing on “Real Time” with Bill Maher on Friday, film producer Michael Moore said that we should consider people such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin “our Taliban” because “their level of bigotry is so un-American.”
- Markos Moulitsas, Daily Kos founder: “In their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban.”
- New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof: “We tend to think of national security narrowly as the risk of a military or terrorist attack. But national security is about protecting our people and our national strength — and the blunt truth is that the biggest threat to America’s national security … comes from budget machinations, and budget maniacs, at home.”