Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi may be backing down a bit on his attempt to seize dictatorial powers. The Muslim Brotherhood leader agreed to a limited compromise on his assertion of supremacy over the courts in which he would allow the judiciary to exercise review over his edits. This development testifies to the strength of the protests against Morsi’s attempt to acquire as much power as Hosni Mubarak had during his reign in Cairo. But even if Morsi’s putsch is contained for the moment, there is little doubt that he is determined to neutralize any possible competition for control over the country. This is, by any objective measure, a real defeat for an Obama administration that has publicly embraced Morsi and the Brotherhood and publicly disparaged his authoritarian predecessor. It is especially embarrassing since just last week President Obama was heaping praise on Morsi for his role in brokering a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, even though it was the Egyptian’s support for Hamas that helped foment the crisis.
But perhaps the most telling thing about the way Egypt is heading back down the road to dictatorship is the relative silence from Morsi’s new buddy in the White House and the State Department. At today’s White House press briefing, spokesman Jay Carney stayed clear of anything that could possibly be considered criticism of Morsi or the Brotherhood’s power grab, saying merely: “We have some concerns about the decisions and declarations that were announced on November 22.” Carney also denied that the president felt “betrayed” by the way Morsi used Washington’s fulsome praise for him as a platform from which he sought to expand his ability to rule by fiat. Given the way the administration dumped Mubarak and then publicly scolded and threatened the Egyptian military when it tried to act as a brake on the Brotherhood’s drive for hegemony, the White House’s unwillingness to say anything more than that speaks volumes about the way Morsi is viewed in Washington these days.
One of the interesting nonevents of the past year has been the way the administration has been able to avoid any debate about its attitude toward Morsi and the Brotherhood. Part of that stems from the unfortunate decision by Michele Bachmann and some other conservative members of the House of Representatives to center any complaints on the personal loyalty of Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Secretary of State Clinton and the wife of disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner. The pushback against Bachmann was bipartisan and the question was transformed from a reasonable debate that needed to be held about Washington’s embrace of the new Egyptian government to one of whether the House GOP was attempting to subject Abedin to a McCarthy-like inquisition based on anti-Arab prejudice.
Once Abedin was enshrined as a victim of bias, critiques of a policy shift in which Washington had made its peace with Morsi were effectively silenced. And with Morsi being portrayed as a peacemaker between Hamas and Israel, it seemed as if the new regime was being elevated to the same sort of friendly status with which the president views the Islamist government in Turkey.
Morsi’s relentless drive to rule without a parliament, and now without a judiciary able to restrain him, makes that embrace look strikingly similar to past American embraces of dictators. Only this time, the dictator isn’t a pro-U.S. authoritarian but a dedicated Islamist allied with terrorists and determined to limit American influence in the region.
This ought to have been a moment when President Obama would speak up on behalf of a cause that he had been vocal about in the last two years: democracy in the Arab world and in particular in Egypt, where a popular uprising discarded a pro-American, though unsustainable, leader. Instead, all we get from the White House is silence that effectively negates the president’s past embrace of the cause of freedom in the Muslim world. Mubarak and the Egyptian military must be wondering now why it is that their misdeeds were unacceptable in the eyes of Obama but Morsi’s cynical actions are OK. Americans who care about the billions of their taxpayer dollars that are being sent to Egypt should be asking the same thing.