Assurances about the benign intent of the Muslim Brotherhood have been the coin of the realm in Washington in the past year as the Obama administration justified its continued embrace of the Egyptian government. But even though we are still being told that there is no alternative to engagement with Mohamed Morsi’s regime, the escalation of anti-Christian violence ought to shock Americans into the realization that they are subsidizing a regime bent on oppressing religious minorities.
The siege of the Christian Cathedral in Cairo was condemned by Morsi, who told the sect’s pope in a phone call that he considered “any aggression against the cathedral an aggression against me personally” and then ordered an investigation into the incident. But the source of the trouble isn’t a mystery. As the New York Times reports, uniformed police and security personnel joined Muslim mobs as they attacked the sacred site in fighting that left four Christians dead. Christians are connecting the dots between the Brotherhood’s sectarian agitation and drive for total power and the growing number of attacks on them. While Morsi tries to give his movement what an American bureaucrat might call “plausible deniability,” Islamist street thugs are under the understandable impression that they have the approval of the movement that has seized control of the country when the police join their depredations rather than stop them. The only mystery is how long it will take for a U.S. government that is still sending nearly $2 billion a year to Egypt’s government, as well as military equipment, to understand that it can’t pretend to talk about supporting the goals of the Arab Spring’s pro-democracy protesters while backing Morsi.
It does no good to pretend, as some claim, that Morsi can’t stop the attacks on Christians or that the forces pushing the country to the brink of religious war are unrelated to the Brotherhood and its supporters. While attacks on Christians were hardly unknown during the long reign of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, it isn’t possible to separate the heightened tension from the expectations of Islamists that they have the Christian minority on the run. The brazen manner with which these mobs have attacked a symbol of Christianity like the Cathedral with the assistance of the police is a signal that things are heading in the wrong direction. The spectacle of security forces with armored personnel carriers and tear gas canons joining the violence on the side of thugs throwing rocks and firebombs at Christian mourners leaving the cathedral makes it hard to argue that this is the work of extremists unconnected with the ruling party.
That Muslims who are prepared to riot and murder at the merest hint of insult aimed at Islam taunted the Christians with what the Times called “lewd gestures involving the cross” in the presence of the police is itself appalling. But it is also indicative of a shift in the mood of the Middle East, in which it is clear that anything goes when it comes to religious conflict. Though the Brotherhood has promised gullible Westerners that it won’t impose its beliefs on non-Muslims or turn the country into a theocratic state, evidence is mounting that the Kulturkampf in Egypt is in full swing.
If President Obama is serious about standing up for human rights, it is necessary for him to speak out publicly against what is going on in Egypt and to start using some of the leverage over its government that he was quick to employ when showing Mubarak the door or threatening the military to allow the Brotherhood to take office. If he fails to do so, the Muslim and Arab world won’t be slow to draw the same conclusions that Egyptians in the street are drawing from the role of the police in the assault on the cathedral. They will think that Obama is indifferent to the fate of the Copts or, even worse, that he has no problems with the Brotherhood’s push for power.