Washington Helpless as Islamists Play for Keeps in Egypt (COMMENTARY MAGAZINE) Jonathan S. Tobin 04/04/12)
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How bad is the current political situation in Egypt? So bad, it
appears, that the Obama administration actually believes it ought to
throw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop an
even more radical Islamist from being elected to the presidency of
the most populous Arab nation. That’s the predicament Washington
faces after the Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate
for Egypt’s presidency. But as much as the surge in popularity of the
Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail may make a tilt toward the
Brotherhood seem understandable, the situation illustrates the depths
to which the administration’s Middle East cluelessness has sunk.
During the weekend, anonymous State Department officials told the New
York Times they were quite happy about the prospect of a Muslim
Brotherhood candidate entering the race for the Egyptian presidency.
Though the U.S. rightly considered the Brotherhood to be a potent
threat to American interests as well as Middle East peace, in light
of the strength shown by even more extreme Islamists, President
Obama’s diplomatic team now apparently considers it to be an
acceptable alternative. But this U.S. tilt toward the Brotherhood is
just the latest of a series of inept moves that has destroyed
American influence in Egypt.
Should the Brotherhood candidate for president succeed, it would
create a dangerous situation in which this Islamist party would
control both the executive and the parliament. This would place
intolerable pressure on the army — which remains the sole force in
the country that could act as a check on the Islamists — to back down
and allow the Brotherhood untrammeled power.
Washington seemingly has no problems with this happening as it has
bought hook, line and sinker, the Brotherhood’s claims it is now
ready to embrace peace with Israel, avoid persecution of Egypt’s
Christian minority, and promote a free enterprise model for economic
development. As Eric Trager writes for the Washington Institute for
Near East Policy’s website, the Brotherhood’s “détente” with the army
command, in which they had promised not to try and run roughshod over
secularists or to take over the country, is now in tatters, as their
drive for power goes into overdrive. There is also the possibility
the Salafis will beat the Brotherhood candidate anyway, in which case
the country would drift even farther to the extremes.
Washington’s thinking appears to be that they would prefer an
Islamist government along the lines of Turkey — which is what they
assume the Brotherhood’s goal is — to one that is modeled after Iran.
But either choice would be terrible. An Egypt in which the
Brotherhood had a monopoly on power would not be friendly to the
United States. And because the administration has discouraged the
army from acting to head off the danger, it is difficult to see how
any of this will turn out well unless the secular candidate, Amr
Moussa, beats both Islamist candidates.
Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak last year. With our embassy now backing
the Brotherhood, secularists and the army must assume the president
means to ditch them, too. In the meantime, Washington has failed to
promote secular democratic groups and then appeased the military by
not putting hold on U.S. aid when Americans were prosecuted for
aiding dissidents. In other words, the only thing consistent about
U.S. policy toward Egypt in the last year has been its inconsistency.
The result is that Egypt, once a staunch U.S. ally, has now fallen
into the grip of competing Islamist parties while Washington
foolishly tries to play favorites among a group that has little use
for American interests or values. The rise of the Islamists in Cairo
strengthens the hand of extremists like Hamas among the Palestinians
and reduces the already minimal chances for peace with Israel.
President Obama chose Cairo as the venue for his vaunted attempt at
outreach to the Muslim world while slighting Israel. Yet, if there is
anything we can conclude from the past year it is that Egyptians and
other Muslims who are embracing Islamist parties throughout the
Middle East have no interest in Obama’s ideas and no use for the
United States. That Cairo will soon be in the hands of competing
factions of Islamists is a sobering but fitting epitaph for the
administration’s feckless foreign policy.
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