Better late than never is the only way one can describe the New York Times’s decision to run an article about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s history of anti-Semitic slanders. As we wrote here on Contentions two weeks ago, a video of an Egyptian TV interview with the Muslim Brotherhood leader from 2010 has surfaced in which he describes Israelis as “the descendants of apes and pigs” and called for a boycott of the United States. As I noted at the time, revelations about the nature of what passes for rhetoric about Israel and the Jews might come as a shock to readers of the Times–since much of their news coverage, as well as the work of op-ed columnists like Nicholas Kristof, had sought to portray the Brotherhood as moderate and friendly people who just happen to be Muslims–but not to those who have been following these developments without the rose-colored glasses that liberals seem to require to discuss the Arab world. The conceit of the piece about Morsi’s comment is, however, to call attention to the difficult position the Egyptian president has been placed in by reports about his despicable language.
Egyptian figures quoted by the Times get the last word here, as they seem to argue that it isn’t reasonable to expect Morsi to apologize since to do so leaves him vulnerable to criticism from his Islamist supporters and their allies who like that kind of talk. The conclusion seems to be that Americans should judge Morsi only by his recent behavior that has been aimed at least partly at ensuring that the flow of billions of dollars of U.S. aid should continue.
The problem is that Morsi’s use of a phrase that is commonly employed throughout the Muslim world to describe Jews as well as other comments that are straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is so common in Egypt as to make it almost unexceptionable. That is no small measure the result of Brotherhood propaganda and mainstream Islamist thought in which demonization of Israelis, Jews and Americans is commonplace. Try as writers like Kristof might to paint the Brotherhood as a responsible political movement, Jew-hatred is one of its core beliefs. The question here is not so much whether Morsi will publicly disavow these slurs but whether the Obama administration will continue to buy into the myth that Morsi is some kind of a moderate whose government deserves to continue to be treated as an ally.
The administration has tread carefully with Morsi over the last several months, even as he moved quickly to consolidate power in Egypt. With the apparent approval of Washington, Morsi has sought to eliminate any possible check on his ability to govern more or less in the same fashion as deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak. Though the Times more or less admits that Morsi’s rhetoric provides us a window as to how he would govern were he not restrained by his need for U.S. cash and Egypt’s relative military weakness, the underlying assumption seems to be that it is America’s interest to prefer him to any possible alternative. It also assumes that Morsi’s influence on events in the region, such as Hamas’s missile offensive against Israel last November, has been entirely benevolent.
In fact, Hamas’s aggressive attitude and risk taking as well as its attempt to increase its influence in the Fatah-controlled West Bank is directly related to the rise of the Brotherhood in Cairo. It is true that President Obama cannot be entirely blamed for the creation of this mess since Mubarak would have fallen no matter what the U.S. did. But his subsequent coddling of Morsi and the Brotherhood as well as the rebukes issued to the Egyptian military set the stage for a situation in which the most populous country in the Arab world is run by a raging anti-Semite who is working to undermine U.S. influence in the region and to strengthen radical forces while being subsidized by American taxpayers.
Morsi’s talk about “apes and pigs” is not a side issue to be ignored in the name of stability or preserving an American ally. It goes straight to the heart of whether Egypt should be treated as a nation ruled by a radical and hostile government that is confident that nothing it does will cause it to lose its American subsidy.