Beware the Muslim Brotherhood
Is the U.S. performing a service to human rights and democracy in responding to the unrest in Egypt by seeking a change of regime in Cairo?
President Barack Obama evidently thinks it is. On January 31, he declared that “transition” should come “now,” with as many elements involved as possible, including what White House press secretary Robert Gibbs obliquely called “non-secular actors” –– a clear allusion to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, emphasizing U.S. support for elections, was similarly insouciant about the Brotherhood’s role in the transition.
This is folly.
The Muslim Brotherhood is backing the presidential aspirations of former International Atomic Energy Agency head Muhammad ElBaradei, a harsh critic the US under successive administrations. Unsurprisingly, ElBaradei sanitizes the Brotherhood as an egalitarian movement that eschews violence.
In fact, the Brotherhood, created in 1928 by Hassan El-Banna, allied itself with Hitler and incubated Islamism in the Middle East. Its leaders and thinkers, like Sayyid Qutb, were the precursors of Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.
Last year, its new leader, Muhammad Badi’, spoke of the virtues of jihad and a state based on Islamic law, while euphorically declaring that the U.S. is heading towards its demise. He has called for Palestinians to end negotiations with Israel and for Egypt to shred its peace treaty with Jerusalem – something his second-in-command, Rashad Al-Bayoumi, emphasized again in recent days as being a priority for the Brotherhood in joining a future government.
Repressed into non-violence by Mubarak, the Brotherhood is the only alternative political force that has been permitted to operate. This is standard practice for regional autocrats — allow only the virulently Islamist to function as an opposition and you put the world on notice that they have to choose between you and the mullahs.
George W. Bush briefly pressed Mubarak for liberalization. Yet he incurred such displeasure at home and abroad for his pains that he relinquished the effort.
In contrast, in his June 2009 Cairo speech, Obama declared that America would not presume to impose its ideas on others.
As if to underline the point, Obama, the biggest-spending US president in history, drastically cut funding to programs designed to promote democracy in Egypt. The $45 million that had been dedicated annually to such projects by the Bush administration was quickly sliced by Obama to $25 million in 2010.
Ahmed Samih, head of a Cairo-based organization that in 2005 used U.S. funds to monitor legislative elections, was unable to do so last year. USAID had to turn down a request for $300,000 from the Egyptian Center for Human Rights. Funding for promoting the rights of women and the disabled as well as for dialogue between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians was also cut off.
“Obama wants change that won’t make the Egyptian government angry. In the Egyptian context, that means there will be no change,” said Ahmed Samih at the time.
Should the West rejoice that President Obama seems to have suddenly repented of his former policy?
No — neither active intervention nor benign neglect serve Egypt or the West.
Elections are worse than useless in societies that are illiberal or under intimidation. Democracy must be built up; it cannot be called into being by ballot. Try to do so, as Bush discovered with the Palestinian Authority, and one ends up with Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A 2010 Pew poll finds the Egyptian public extremely radical, with the roughly one-third of Egyptians who see a struggle between Islamists and modernizers favoring the Islamists by 59% to 27%. Most Egyptians would like to see shariah law instituted, 82% of Egyptians want adulterers stoned, 77% want thieves to be whipped and their hands amputated and 84% favor the death penalty for Muslims who change religion. When the Mubarak government imposed a ban three years ago on female genital mutilation, the practice continued unabated.
Is it likely that consulting the Egyptian public now will produce more liberalism, human rights, peace and security?
In short, what will happen to the U.S.’s regional standing, having left an ally to twist in the wind? What is to happen to the harried, periodically terrorized Coptic Christian minority? What will happen to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty? And what happens when the largest, U.S.-armed and trained army in the Middle East is run by an Islamist successor regime?
Obama’s new embrace of Muhammad ElBaradei and his Muslim Brotherhood enablers is worse than his former benign neglect of Mubarak. The choice is between bad and worse. Mubarak is shuffling off the scene, but his regime needn’t. Obama should focus on making bad better, not replacing it with worse.
Daniel Mandel is a fellow in history at Melbourne University, director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy and author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel (Routledge, 2004).
This article originally appeared on nationalpost.com, published with permission of the author.