Thursday, April 5, 2012

Another Unforced Obama Error on Egypt

by Jonathan S. Tobin

Yesterday, I wrote about the Obama administration’s decision to back the Muslim Brotherhood’s bid for a monopoly on power in Egypt. The rationale behind this startling decision was the possibility that an even more extreme Islamist appeared likely to win the upcoming presidential election. But now it appears that the candidacy of Sheik Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafi leader who appeared to be taking the country by storm, is in jeopardy.

If so, and the possibility that the most radical Islamist in the race will not be running Egypt has receded, the question for Washington is how President Obama’s foreign policy team — which met this week with a delegation of radical Islamists from the Brotherhood in the White House — proposes to walk back their latest unforced error on Egypt? Given the dangers that would accrue from the Brotherhood adding the presidency to their control of Egypt’s new parliament, it looks as if the administration has given sanction to a development that will alter the political landscape of the Middle East in a manner that will severely diminish American influence and increase the possibility of more Islamist violence against Israel.

The problems of Sheik Ismail provide a bit of comic relief to an otherwise grim situation in Cairo. The radical leader is an ardent foe of the United States, but it appears that his mother, who went to California to be with Ismail’s sister who had previously immigrated there, obtained American citizenship before she died. If so, that would contravene a law passed last year that mandated that the parents of any Egyptian president must not have any other passport. Should the charge be true and Ismail is forced to leave the contest, that would be a huge victory for the Brotherhood and their candidate, wealthy businessman Khairat Al Shater.

But this is nothing for the United States to cheer about. Though the White House may be buying into the Brotherhood’s assurances of moderation and devotion to peace and stability, a closer look at Al Shater reveals that the Islamist group hasn’t really changed its stripes. As Bret Stephens wrote earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, the Brotherhood candidate is anything but moderate on the question of Middle East peace and doesn’t sound like someone the White House should be rolling out the red carpet for:

On the subject of Israel, Mr. Shater noted that the killing of Hamas’s Ahmed Yassin was “a heinous crime corresponding to the perfidious nature of the Zionist enemy.” As for negotiating with Israel, he called it “mindless”: “The only way” to deal with the Jewish state, he insisted, “is jihad.” He faulted “the enemies of Islam” for trying to “distort and remove [jihad] from the hearts and minds and souls of Muslims.” He blasted the U.S. for preventing “the Islamic nation in its entirety” from eliminating “the usurper Zionist enemy.”

Moreover, although as Stephens notes, some of the things the candidate says are pleasing to Western ears, there’s no denying his goal is to impose Islam on every aspect of Egyptian society. If, in the most optimistic scenario, the Brotherhood wants to emulate Turkey rather than Iran, that means the transformation of a secular Western ally into an Islamist nation that will always be hostile to U.S. interests and peace.

Yet, by diving into the election and giving the Brotherhood its seal of approval, the White House may have once again undermined any hope that the military or secular moderates could hold off the Islamist surge.

The list of administration errors on Egypt is long. It refused to promote democracy or human rights while Hosni Mubarak still ruled, but then compounded that error by quickly dumping Mubarak. It repeated that pattern by seeking to attack the military government that succeeded Mubarak and then appeased them by continuing the aid in the face of provocations. Now, it has put its chips on the Brotherhood even though there is still a chance it can be stopped. After all this, the only question is what Obama blunder will be next?

Jonathan S. Tobin


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