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.
Of course, the pursuit of stability is reasonable enough. But what we’ve learned from the last few years is that stability purchased by selling out the rights and freedoms of the people of the Arab world presents not only as a moral problem, but also as one of efficacy. So-called realists disregard the dignity of the oppressed as mere idealism, but this practice just plain fails at its objective: Arab police states provided the illusion of stability, but in effect undermined it.
This was certainly Mubarak’s approach. While the political dominance of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly a welcome development, to say the least, it was made nearly inevitable by Mubarak’s policy of suppressing any and all political organization he could. Only the Brotherhood’s Islamism, kept alive underground and in the mosques, and long preceding Egypt’s current political establishment, was able to withstand the regime’s tyranny.
The other institution that was and remains strong is Egypt’s military. The Brotherhood allied with the military to hold early elections before the non-Islamist movements could coalesce into a more serious rival, and they were rewarded by Morsi. As the Washington Post editorializes today, “The Egyptian military is given virtual autonomy, with a defense minister appointed from within its ranks and a budget determined by a national security council rather than by parliament.”
The Post continues:
The deeper problem is that Mr. Morsi’s government appears content to steamroll, rather than seek accommodation with, secular opponents. While his spokesmen say they recognize that some of the protesters are peaceful members of the movement that overthrew Mr. Mubarak, they claim that the crowds contain paid thugs and provocateurs.
Obama shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to defend the rights Egyptians finally thought they had within their grasp out of fear of upsetting a stable balance; it isn’t there. Nor should Obama worry about the perception that he would be insulting the Egyptian people’s religious sensibilities; Morsi’s reputation as “Mubarak with a beard” is an indication that many Egyptians believe Morsi has hijacked and abused their faith as a means to subjugate them and collect power for himself. And with regard to his popularity, Obama doesn’t have much to lose there either; as Pew showed, Egyptians don’t think much of him–and he’s not giving them a reason to reconsider.