Since the riots in Egypt broke out last week, Barack Obama has attempted to hit the snooze button on his 3 a.m. phone call. After much uncertainty about the American position, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced today he will step down as president-for-life at the end of his term this September. There is no word on whether this will satisfy the majority of rioters in his country, nor what government may follow him, but apparently it did not satisfy Obama. Shortly after the announcement, Obama declared, “orderly transition…must begin now.” As to what government will follow, a member of the Obama administration has allegedly met with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical fundamentalist organization that incubated the leadership of al-Qaeda. The Brotherhood is uniquely positioned to take advantage of these region-wide uprisings. The good news is this fate could be prevented; the bad news is there is no evidence Barack Obama has any idea how to bring this about.
Choosing Among No Good Solutions
Leading up to today’s announcement, Obama had called for an “orderly transition” to a post-Mubarak government following open, democratic presidential elections in September. However, Hillary Clinton said Sunday that Mubarak must take “concrete steps toward democratic and economic reform… immediately.” However, she added, “We are not advocating any specific outcome.”
None of us is privy to the behind-the-scenes negotiations — at least until the next WikiLeaks dump — so we can hope direct talks took a smarter ring than public rhetoric. Unfortunately, reports indicate the Obama administration is already legitimizing the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in a post-Mubarak government. The foreign policy elite insist there is little cause for concern; that these are “democratic” rallies with broad-based support, and the Brotherhood plays a tiny role in the proceedings. Its talking heads state we “can’t” exclude the MB from a democratically elected future regime, but its representatives will be drown out by more liberal figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei. Some conservatives insist America must bog itself down on the banks of the Nile and advance “the freedom agenda” despite its likely beneficiaries. The table seems set for a replay of foreign policy disasters past, beginning with media disinformation.
Nobody Here But Us America-Lovin’ Democrats
One is always impressed by the discipline, if not the originality, of talking heads spouting talking points. No facts, logic, or human intellectual impulse can keep them from repeating their rote catechism of the moment like a Victrola wound by the hands of their party leadership. Since the demonstrations broke out, they have reassured us that the crowds are diverse, opposition to Mubarak is wide, and– here’s their new phrase of the hour — “the Muslim Brotherhood came late to the party.”
The Washington Post illustrates this by quoting Mohammed el-Rady, a 32-year-old government accountant who told reporters:
We want to be like America. We want to choose our president. This movement is not about Islam. It’s not about religion. It’s about people who have been suffering for 30 years who want democracy.
Readers of a certain age or political sophistication can virtually hear echoes of Mao Tse-tung being described by a Communist-riddled State Department as an “agrarian reformer” or Fidel Castro as the George Washington of the Cuba Unlike those media manipulations, the media line on Egypt is not altogether false. The Egyptian people, including its Muslim majority, do not favor the Muslim Brotherhood’s vision of a theocracy dedicated to converting or killing the nation’s substantial Coptic Christian population.
But popular will has never restrained a well-organized minority of fanatics let loose against a large, unorganized majority. It appears the Muslim Brotherhood is riding legitimate dissent all the way to national power.
Hide in Plain Sight
The Brotherhood’s leaders have made clear, yes, they were “late to the party,” but they intend to take control once the other guests are sufficiently inebriated. Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the 82-year-old recently retired leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, told The Washington Post, “If we had led [the protests], they would have massacred us.” He then wrapped his minority cause in the interests of the majority. “All we want is freedom for all the people,” he claimed. But he confessed,”Freedom would give us [the Muslim Brotherhood] space for movement. We want to be part of the fabric of society.”
No fewer than 34 members of the Brotherhood received “space for movement” due to the demonstrations. Their relatives took advantage of the chaos to spring them from prison; some later appeared at a public rally in Cairo.
That is not enough for Establishment liberals, who called on America to end all economic activity with and suspend military aid Egypt until Mubarak frees all of Egypt’s “political prisoners.” CNSNews.com reports “The Working Group on Egypt, an initiative involving experts from the Carnegie Endowment and Brookings Institution” made this demand. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer now with Brookings, recently told the media Obama “should not be afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The Muslim Brotherhood has foreign supporters besides Carnegie and Brookings. In June 2009, current Egyptian Vice President Omar Soliman told Gen. David Petraeus that Iran is supporting the Brotherhood and Hamas within his country.
The Brotherhood also enjoys one conspicuous Egyptian supporter: Mohamed ElBaradei. He won the hearts of the Left as head of the IAEA, and the international Left enthuses at an ElBaradei presidency. ElBaradei is the equivalent of the “No Labels” movement in Egyptian politics: dull, drab, and without a base outside of the media and other Western liberals. This makes the 68-year-old the perfect person to play the next part in the revolutionary plan.
Establish, Then Topple a Patsy
Just as radicals — Islamic fundamentalists or socialist revolutionaries — hitch their star to a larger movement before co-opting it, they often allow a temporary, provisional government to be set up, with themselves in a minority position. However, they proceed to topple the government from within, force out well-meaning democrats, and establish a totalitarian state. It is often forgotten that the Russians established a short-lived provisional government after the fall of Czar Nicholas II; the Bolsheviks consolidated their grip on power and overthrew it, leading to 70 years of despotism. In Iran, the Ayatollah originally named a liberal reformer and scientist, Mehdi Bazargan, as prime minister before establishing that nation’s current governing system.
In Egypt, they have their man in ElBaradei.
Essam el-Eryan, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, has said ElBaradei is authorized to speak on the Brotherhood’s behalf. For his part, ElBaradei has met with MB members and told multiple news outlets, ““They are no way extremists. They are no way using violence. This is what the regimee…sold to the West and to the U.S.: ‘It’s either us, repression or al-Qaeda-type Islamists.’”
Already, experts realize the ElBaradei government will be more antagonistic to U.S. interests than Mubarak’s. Wayne White, a former State Department expert on the region, has said, “Washington has to expect that if there is a successor regime in Egypt because Mubarak has been forced out, it cannot count on that regime to be as friendly and supportive as Mubarak was.”
They also realize he will be temporary. James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation accurately assessed ElBaradei “would be a weak political leader who would eventually be swept aside by the tide of events, leaving behind an uncertain political situation that would benefit anti-democratic forces.”
More to the point, the Muslim Brotherhood has plainly stated this in the media. The New York Times reports:
One Brotherhood supporter, Mohammed Fayed, an engineer, said that even if Dr. ElBaradei could replace Mr. Mubarak, he should stay no longer than a year: “ElBaradei doesn’t live here and doesn’t know us. We need a leader who can understand Egyptians.”
Faced with these facts, some have chosen to stick their heads in the Sahara’s soft, rippling sand. The Washington Times reported, “Analysts say it would be hard to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from a genuine coalition, but that the Islamists would have a lot less support than they do now in a truly fair political system.” Wonderful! All Egypt needs is “a truly fair [read: Western/liberal democratic] political system.” How likely an outcome is this in a coalition government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood? From the days of the Pharaohs to the present, democracy has been the exception rather than the rule, and Egyptian democracy has often yielded to military force.
The Islamic fundamentalists will erase the current constitutional ban on their participation in politics instated by Mubarak. With the Brotherhood inside the gates, its members will attempt to consolidate as much of the nation as possible under their control, particularly the military. The interim government will give the Brotherhood “legitimacy” as a representative of the people. When they feel confident, they will attempt to impose Shari’a on the entire population.
The good news is the vast majority of Egyptians want no part of this brand of theocracy. The bad news is, depending on who the president is at the time, they may not have a choice. American foreign policy is littered with examples of the State Department undermining pro-Western but authoritarian regimes, paving the way for anti-American totalitarian regimes. This history plays out from the Shah and Chiang Kai-shek to Batista and Anastasio Somoza, to empowering a litany of corrupt or genocidal African regimes who commonly abuse the system that observers came up with a descriptive of it: “One man, one vote, one time.” If the president at the time of the Brotherhood push is a liberal president with a heavy sense of guilt and shame about America’s past and an overly solicitous attitude toward Islam, it would be particularly disastrous.
America’s interests in the region are to see a stable government that does not become a haven for anti-American terrorism or destabilize the region. Since Mubarak’s ouster is inevitable, what can be done to secure them?
A Hands-Off Policy
The only question at the moment is whether Hosni Mubarak will last through the end of the week, let alone to the elections in September. As it stands, open elections are scheduled for the fall. The people of the Islamic world have always been more anti-American than their rulers; thus, free elections will inevitably usher in a government more hostile to American concerns than the one it replaces (witness Egypt’s previous election, or the election of Hamas in Palestine, or the new Lebanese coalition government that includes Hezbollah). Mubarak had held the MB in check by constitutionally forbidding its members from running for office and regularly imprisoning or harassing its members. Unless a pro-Western military member stages a coup, it may be impossible to ban the Brotherhood from the next election.
What Americans can do is simple. A wag once defined diplomacy as “the art of letting others have your way.” The administration should continue to support Mubarak’s decision to step aside in September. However, we should make clear that we do not demand an election be held; any government the Egyptian people believe they can live with will be acceptable to us. Officials should also publicly drop any demand that the Muslim Brotherhood be allowed to participate in any election that is held. The ban, they should note, is an internal Egyptian matter designed to protect the people from a violent sectarian future, and we do not regard the Brotherhood as a a necessary or beneficial aspect of the nation’s future. Privately, U.S. officials should tell Mubarak that we are firm about his family stepping aside in September, but that he has a free hand for seven months to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood. Allow him to earn his foreign aid receipts by spending the intervening months repressing the Brotherhood — and only the Brotherhood — so badly that they are ill-equipped to play the role they desire in Egypt’s future.
Finally, if a popular moderate figure from the military stages a coup that is supported by the people, we should be no less supportive. The military is the most cohesive organization in society, and its charismatic figures have made up the country’s political leadership for generations. It is possible one of its members could establish a widely respected government the way Egyptian politics have usually been settled: by military coup. If the coup is (relatively) pro-American, opposed to extremists, and welcomed by most Egyptians, it would be the best possible outcome — far better than we would see from any popularly elected government that reflects the views of the region’s fundamentalists.
Others may balk that this is undemocratic, or anti-democratic. But democracy is not the highest goal; continued stability, a relatively free society, and tolerance for the nation’s Coptic Christian minority rank significantly higher. Democratic means employed to repressive ends harm the greater good. A vibrant Brotherhood would erode individual liberties, drag Egypt into every dispute in the Middle East, and wreck the nation’s already ailing economy. Rather than obsessing with the means, Americans should support the general goal that Egyptians deserve another government and hope for the best for all parties. As John Quincy Adams said, “America is the friend of liberty everywhere but the guarantor only of our own.”
This policy of benign neglect recognizes our common enemy and allows its threat to be minimized. It’s the least of several bad options. Unfortunately, it appears Barack Obama has chosen an even worse path.
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