In the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has the latest report on how the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to take advantage of political flux in Egypt to grab power for itself. All indications are that most Egyptians do not want its fundamentalist rule; certainly the primary impetus behind the Tahrir Square protests was not a desire to remake Egypt in Iran’s image.
But the Brotherhood has long been the best-organized non-governmental force in the country and now it is flexing its organizational muscle on behalf of its candidates in upcoming elections which have been scheduled so soon, thanks to a recent referendum on constitutional change, that more liberal leaders will have a hard time organizing their forces.
Nevertheless, Ignatius notes that “in the weeks since the referendum, the [liberal] activists seem to have gotten a second wind and started forming new parties to compete with the Brotherhood. There’s the Social Democratic Party, which includes pro-democracy organizer Amr Hamzawy; the Egyptian Liberal Party, formed by Naguib Sawiris, the head of the telecommunications giant Orascom; and a leftist group called the Popular Alliance. Many more parties,” Ignatius concludes, “are on the way.”
Those parties need help to compete with the Brotherhood. The question is who will provide it. In recent years American administration have taken the attitude, at least publicly, that it favors elections but will not play favorites in the election process. In Iraq this abdication gave the Iranians and other malign actors free reign to push their favored candidates, leading to a dangerous polarization of politics. It would be tragic to repeat that mistake in Egypt, the biggest and most important Arab state of all.
After World War II, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations did not take the position that they would be happy with Communist Parties coming to power in Western Europe or Japan as long as they did so via the ballot box. Instead they directed the CIA to direct millions of dollars into the coffers of anti-communist parties to allow them to keep the “Reds” out of power. We need a similar policy in Egypt to keep the “Greens” (the Islamists) out of power.
Obviously there are real risks involved. If U.S. financing were uncovered it could lead liberal candidates to be labeled American stooges. But no doubt they will face that charge anyway, whether or not they receive any U.S. support. And there are ways that a competent intelligence organization could use third-party cut-outs (e.g., the Jordanians, Emiratis, or Moroccans) to funnel support without leaving American fingerprints.
The battle for the new Middle East is ongoing. We must not lose out because of our unwillingness to play the game the way our enemies do.