Commentary Magazine


Egypt Headed Off Islamist Cliff

The torching of the headquarters of Egyptian presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik yesterday should have been a reminder to those blithely assuming the Muslim Brotherhood might roll over and play dead (in the wake of the seeming rebuke the party received in last week’s presidential election) that they ought never to underestimate the Islamist group. It’s true that Islamist candidates got less than half of the votes cast in the first round of voting and the emergence of Shafik–a secular former military officer who was a surprise second place finisher just behind the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi–showed there was a significant constituency for an alternative to the party that received three quarters of the vote in the parliamentary elections last year. But as Eric Trager writes in the New Republic, reports of the Brotherhood’s demise were and are greatly exaggerated. With Morsi and Shafik set to face off later this month in a runoff, the Islamists are still in an excellent position to win the presidency and complete their stranglehold on power.

Trager points out that the Brotherhood has an overwhelming advantage in organization, as it is the country’s only true national party with grass-roots cadres who are deeply committed to its triumph. With many Egyptians disgusted with the runoff’s choice of an Islamist or a Mubarak retread, the odds are very much in favor of the Brotherhood’s otherwise uninspiring candidate coming out on top. Though the Obama administration and much of its cheering section in the press have tried in recent months to downplay the nature of the threat the Brotherhood poses to regional security and U.S. influence, the completion of the party’s conquest of Egypt will be a watershed in America’s Middle East policy.

Unfortunately, it’s almost certainly too late for the United States to do anything to alter this outcome even if President Obama wanted to. Those who have criticized the administration for its abandonment of Mubarak during the initial Arab Spring protests may be hoping that Shafik will win and therefore stop the country’s drift toward extremist Islam. But outside of minority communities such as the Christian Copts who rightly fear for their fate under a government dominated by the Brotherhood, it’s not clear that most Egyptians would tolerate a retread from the old regime. In fact, Shafik may turn out to be the perfect foil for the Brotherhood, because he could move many secularists to support the Islamists rather than countenance a return to the Mubarak era.

That will mean an end to hopes for the emergence of a genuine democracy in Egypt, as it is unlikely a Brotherhood government will allow itself to ever be voted out. As Trager writes:

When only one group can organize effectively in a newly competitive political environment, single-party domination becomes practically inevitable—with potentially devastating consequences. After all, the dominant party can nominate just about anyone, and win. And if it uses its power to prevent potential competitors from emerging, it can also get away with just about anything.

The consequences for the peace treaty with Israel are obvious. President Obama may think he will have more “flexibility” to impose his ideas about Middle East peace in a second term. But unless something happens in the next three weeks to derail the Brotherhood, the basic strategic equation of the region will be altered in favor of the Islamists and their Hamas allies rendering any further talk about the peace process a fantasy.

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