How bad is the current political situation in Egypt? So bad, it appears, that the Obama administration actually believes it ought to throw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop an even more radical Islamist from being elected to the presidency of the most populous Arab nation. That’s the predicament Washington faces after the Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate for Egypt’s presidency. But as much as the surge in popularity of the Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail may make a tilt toward the Brotherhood seem understandable, the situation illustrates the depths to which the administration’s Middle East cluelessness has sunk.
During the weekend, anonymous State Department officials told the New York Times they were quite happy about the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate entering the race for the Egyptian presidency. Though the U.S. rightly considered the Brotherhood to be a potent threat to American interests as well as Middle East peace, in light of the strength shown by even more extreme Islamists, President Obama’s diplomatic team now apparently considers it to be an acceptable alternative. But this U.S. tilt toward the Brotherhood is just the latest of a series of inept moves that has destroyed American influence in Egypt.
Should the Brotherhood candidate for president succeed, it would create a dangerous situation in which this Islamist party would control both the executive and the parliament. This would place intolerable pressure on the army — which remains the sole force in the country that could act as a check on the Islamists — to back down and allow the Brotherhood untrammeled power.
Washington seemingly has no problems with this happening as it has bought hook, line and sinker, the Brotherhood’s claims it is now ready to embrace peace with Israel, avoid persecution of Egypt’s Christian minority, and promote a free enterprise model for economic development. As Eric Trager writes for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s website, the Brotherhood’s “détente” with the army command, in which they had promised not to try and run roughshod over secularists or to take over the country, is now in tatters, as their drive for power goes into overdrive. There is also the possibility the Salafis will beat the Brotherhood candidate anyway, in which case the country would drift even farther to the extremes.
Washington’s thinking appears to be that they would prefer an Islamist government along the lines of Turkey — which is what they assume the Brotherhood’s goal is — to one that is modeled after Iran. But either choice would be terrible. An Egypt in which the Brotherhood had a monopoly on power would not be friendly to the United States. And because the administration has discouraged the army from acting to head off the danger, it is difficult to see how any of this will turn out well unless the secular candidate, Amr Moussa, beats both Islamist candidates.
Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak last year. With our embassy now backing the Brotherhood, secularists and the army must assume the president means to ditch them, too. In the meantime, Washington has failed to promote secular democratic groups and then appeased the military by not putting hold on U.S. aid when Americans were prosecuted for aiding dissidents. In other words, the only thing consistent about U.S. policy toward Egypt in the last year has been its inconsistency.
The result is that Egypt, once a staunch U.S. ally, has now fallen into the grip of competing Islamist parties while Washington foolishly tries to play favorites among a group that has little use for American interests or values. The rise of the Islamists in Cairo strengthens the hand of extremists like Hamas among the Palestinians and reduces the already minimal chances for peace with Israel.
President Obama chose Cairo as the venue for his vaunted attempt at outreach to the Muslim world while slighting Israel. Yet, if there is anything we can conclude from the past year it is that Egyptians and other Muslims who are embracing Islamist parties throughout the Middle East have no interest in Obama’s ideas and no use for the United States. That Cairo will soon be in the hands of competing factions of Islamists is a sobering but fitting epitaph for the administration’s feckless foreign policy.