Originally published at Rubin Reports.
The victory in the referendum on the Constitution is the fourth straight Muslim Brotherhood success—including the overthrow of President Husni Mubarak’s regime with army assistance, the parliamentary election and the presidential election–in the process of taking over Egypt for the long-term and fundamentally transforming it into a radical Islamist state. This last one should be sufficient to go all the way.
This event is also producing a new stage of Western rationalizations that whitewash the Muslim Brotherhood and rationalize support for Islamists being in power.
It isn’t that the constitution, as many Salafists would have liked, explicitly mandates a revolutionary Sharia state. Rather, the constitution sets up a framework that will allow the Brotherhood to do so. Between the president and the constitution, the Brotherhood will now march through every institution and remake it. Judges will be appointed; school curricula rewritten; army generals appointed; and so on. As the Brotherhood shows patience in carrying out this process of gaining total, permanent control, many in the West will interpret that as moderation.
“The problem with [President] Morsi isn’t whether he is Islamist or not, it is whether he is authoritarian,” said a Western diplomat in Cairo. Wow, talk about Western misunderstanding of the importance of ideology. Perhaps whether or not he is an Islamist—and of course he is–has something to do with his being authoritarian? Since his goal is a Sharia state then that is an authoritarian destination for which authoritarian means are considered acceptable and are in fact a necessity. One might as well insert the words Communist, fascist, or radical Arab nationalist for Islamist.
There are three factors involved here in setting Western policy: ignorance, a desire to avoid crises, and a foolish belief that having a radical regime in Egypt will moderate the extremists.
To add insult to injury—literally—the New York Times, which has continually portrayed the Brotherhood in glowing terms, now explains to its readers that the opposition has nothing to offer:
“The leading opposition alternatives appeared no less authoritarian [than the Brotherhood]: Ahmed Shafik, who lost the presidential runoff, was a former Mubarak prime minister campaigning as a new strongman, and Hamdeen Sabahi, who narrowly missed the runoff, is a Nasserite who has talked of intervention by the military to unseat Mr. Morsi despite his election as president.
“’The problem with ‘I told you so’ is the assumption that if things had turned out differently the outcome would be better, and I don’t see that,’ the diplomat said, noting that the opposition to the draft constitution had hardly shown more respect than Mr. Morsi has for the norms of democracy or the rule of law. ‘There are no black hats and white hats here, there are no heroes and villains. Both sides are using underhanded tactics and both sides are using violence.’”
This is disgraceful, a rationalization for either failure or worse. The idea is that it really didn’t matter who won because they are all the same so why not a Muslim Brotherhood government with a powerful Salafist influence? Any leader of Egypt is going to be a strongman. The question is a strongman for what causes? And if people were talking about unseating the democratically elected Mursi that’s because they view him as the equivalent for Egypt of some new Khomeini, a man who will drag Egypt into decades of repressive dictatorship and war.
I’ve often written of the weakness and political incompetence of the anti-Islamist forces but these are courageous people fighting for a good cause. True, their side includes leftist and nationalist extremists but should that be used to discredit them all when the Islamists are constantly whitewashed?
And for U.S. interests it certainly does matter who wins. Extend this wrong-headed analogy: the Iranian Islamists are no worse than the shah; Saddam Hussein was no worse than the oligarchs who ran Iraq before it went radical in 1958; the current Islamist regime in Turkey is no worse than the high-handed Kemal Ataturk? One might have well had Communist regimes in South America rather than military dictatorships?
It might not sound nice to some people but the main task of Western diplomats is not to worship democracy but to try to promote behavior in other governments favorable to their own country’s interests. In those terms, Mubarak or Shafik is better than Mursi. And since Mursi doesn’t even stand for real democracy the choice is even more obvious.
And there is a dire implication here: If there is no real democratic opposition then the United States doesn’t have to help it. Is this principle thus extended to Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Tunisia? Are Islamists the only alternative or, to put it in a slightly less obviously objectionable way, should we accept and even help Islamists because everyone is the same?
Wow, has the Western elite lost its way. There is so little sense of who is a friend and who is an enemy; the lesser of two evils; the strategic interests of their own country that one can only despair of any lessons being learned from experience.
It’s ironic that Obama has spent so much time talking about how past U.S. support for pro-American dictators has been a mistake that led to a legacy of crisis when he is now supporting an anti-American dictator.
The argument presented by U.S. officials that compromise is in the Brotherhood’s interest is laughable. Do people in Washington know what the Brotherhood wants and conditions in Egypt better than the Brotherhood leadership? We have seen this same mistake made many times before by Western governments and editorial writers, lecturing a radical regime that it would accomplish more by being totally different.
What is most disturbing is not that the Obama Administration is supporting this regime–which is bad enough–but that its not even suspicious of the Egyptian government’s intentions and behavior. It thinks the Brotherhood is going to curb the Salafists while it actually uses them as storm troops. And so in the coming months we will see more obfuscations and apologies about Cairo’s behavior.
The sad truth is that it is too late for U.S. leverage—which the Obama Administration doesn’t want to use any way—to have an impact. The Brotherhood is already in power. If the United States gives it money and support, the Brotherhood will use that to consolidate its rule while mobilizing the people against the United States; if Washington doesn’t, the Brotherhood will then mobilize the people even more effectively in that way. A U.S. policy coddling the regime will be seen as the weak and stupid response of enemies; a tougher policy will be portrayed as hostile.
True, if Obama doles out money and military equipment to the regime with conditions and slowly, Morsi has an incentive to go slower and more carefully yet it also strengthens the regime’s ability to fulfill its goals and entrench itself in power. But the army isn’t going to do anything against the regime even though, at this point, it will not repress the opposition for Morsi. The Islamists aren’t going to be won over by the United States. And Obama isn’t going to be serious about using pressure except for meaningless statements and phone calls. The administration will speak nice language about protecting women’s and minority (Christian) rights while it looks the other way when these are violated.
Understandably, the democratic opposition—like its counterparts in Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Iran—has learned that the United States will not help them. As one sign at a demonstration put it: Obama: Our dictator is your bitch. One day, decades in the future, an American president might be apologizing to Egyptians for a U.S. policy that backed a repressive Islamist regime in their country.
What are the next steps for Morsi? To out-wait the opposition demonstrations, which might well diminish since the constitution is now an established fact, begin the transformation of Egypt’s institutions, and figure out how to handle the problem of parliament. Can he reinstate the results of the earlier election—with a 75 percent Islamist majority—or will he have to hold a new vote next year that might yield a much smaller majority?
Originally published at Rubin Reports.
About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.
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