The Cairo Effect and Egypt

by Benjamin Domenech on 2:16 pm January 11, 2011

In surveying the first two years of President Obama’s term from a foreign policy perspective, it’s striking how naive his Cairo address in 2009 seems today in light of real developments in the Muslim world. As time gives us perspective on Obama’s words, lauded by many in the American press and branded by the White House as the “Cairo Effect”, we see that instead of successfully encouraging the Muslim World to “forget their evil ways and learn to love us” (as a future president once put it) instead had an overall effect of freshly diminishing the influence of the United States, signaling an America eager to shrink from making forward-looking policy while working within a realistic framework in the region.

One example of this situation is in the nation that hosted the president’s speech: Egypt, where the repressive regime of Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Party clearly rigged legislative elections at the end of November.

As wise observers know, oftentimes the choices made within the context of America’s engagement in the Middle East are limited to a decision between supporting clearly repressive regimes and allowing the vilest enemies of democracy and freedom to triumph — a choice in which the good is absent, and you are left with the bad and the ugly. Such is the situation in Egypt today. The recent election doesn’t pass the smell test — as Stephen McInerney, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy, told the Weekly Standard, the Mubarak regime wasn’t “even making an effort to look good.”

Yet this repressive situation is not without justification — namely, the likelihood that a truly free election would elevate the power base of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were effectively pushed from parliament, left with just a single elected candidate.

If you are unfamiliar with the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps it’s enough to say that their leadership in Egypt spent much of the last week attempting to blame Israel’s Mossad for a New Year’s Eve massacre of Coptic Christians outside a church in Alexandria, Egypt, as part of what one commenter branded a “Zionist conspiracy against national unity.” I encourage you to read author Claire Berlinski’s essay on the Brotherhood’s origins at Ricochet, as well as Belinski’s discussion of the views of leading Brotherhood voice Yusuf al-Qaradawi. She writes that the Brotherhood “is at its core unremittingly anti-secular, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic and anti-Western. It has fractured; there are divisions within it; like all movements it is comprised of individuals, some of whom are pleasant–but basically it has not changed.”

So what is the proper attitude toward a regime which engages in clearly anti-democratic practices in order to keep such foes from gaining a foothold? I spoke with Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, for his views on the matter.

“In recent years, the Egyptian regime has adopted a new, troubling character, moving from autocracy with a liberal veneer to full-blown autocracy. The most recent elections suggest the regime no longer has much interest in pretending,” Hamid told me. “In the 2005 elections, the Brotherhood won 20 percent of the seats in what seemed a victory for Egyptian Islamism. Since then, the Brotherhood has experienced the worst period of anti-Islamist repression since the 1960s. This coincides with the rise of a new faction of neo-liberal, Western-educated technocrats in the ruling party, who, somewhat ironically, seem to have less tolerance for opposition than the regime’s ‘old guard.’”

Hamid maintains that the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are in a state of increasing crisis in response to this repression.

“The Brotherhood has struggled to respond to the regime repression and failed to articulate a clear vision for change,” Hamid told me. “The 2010 elections – quite possibly the most rigged in Egyptian history — further showed a movement hedging its bets, unsure of where to go and how to get there. Their half-hearted participation — they only ran about 130 candidates out of a possible 518 — came after difficult internal debates over whether and how to participate in elections that they knew would be worse than anything in recent memory.”

Hamid believes there is real risk of the Brotherhood uniting with the Salafi movement in Egypt, a view backed up by a recent academic study from Egyptian researcher Hossam Tammam.

“The danger is that the Brotherhood members may disengage from politics altogether and find refuge in more closed, conservative approach to religion, through, for example, joining Egypt’s increasingly influential Salafi groups,” Hamid said.

Yet natural disgust with this kind of repression has to be balanced against the concern, as Khaled Abu Toameh noted last week, that the triumph of fundamentalists would have an incredibly destructive effect:

“If Egypt falls into the hands of the Muslim fundamentalists, the first thing the new government would do is abrogate the peace treaty with Israel and close down the Israeli embassy in Cairo. This is exactly what the Islamic Revolution of the Ayatollahs did when it took over Iran. From there, the road to joining the Iranian-led axis of evil would be very short. The new regime in Cairo would distance itself from the US and the EU in favor of a political, economic and religious alliance with Iran and its proxies.”

According to Ilan Weinglass, editor of the Terror Finance Blog and a fellow at the American Center for Democracy, the regime is attempting to manipulate the power structure while keeping the Brotherhood down — learning from the experience of Hamas’ victory in Palestinian elections.

“Egypt uses the Muslim Brotherhood as a safety valve, basically allowing them a little more freedom when there’s more anger at the regime and then closing things up again before they become a threat,” Weinglass said. “It’s a problem for the general US policy of democracy promotion — a real democratic election in Egypt would lead to results we absolutely don’t want, a la Hamas in Gaza in 2006.”

This is exactly the kind of thorny foreign policy situation that demands a president with a coherent vision, one that amounts to more than just blandishments about respect and tolerance. If only America had one.

Cross-posted at the Washington Examiner.

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