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US Foreign Policy, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

The Obama administration, though they would not characterize it as such nor have much desire to acknowledge it at all, have attempted  a strategic detente with the “moderate” elements of political Islam.

This policy has not been entirely consistent; Syria, for example, is a quagmire the administration has wisely refrained from wading directly into despite the best efforts of R2P advocates to drag us there.  But more importantly, under President Obama the US supported the broad-based Arab Spring popular revolt against US ally, dictator Hosni Mubarak, and pushed the subsequent ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Libyan revolution against the entirely mad Colonel Gaddafi. These appear to be geopolitical “moves” upon which the Obama administration hopes to build.

I would like to emphasize that there is one legitimate and valid strategic pro to this sub rosa policy; namely, if everything went well, it would provide the United States with powerful triangulation against revolutionary, apocalyptic, radical Islamism as expressed by al Qaida and various Salafi extremist movements. There are reasons, rooted in takfirism, strategy and the politics of lunacy that our terrorist enemies frequently hate and revile the Brotherhood as traitors, apostates or whatever. Isolating the most actively dangerous and violent revolutionary enemies from a large mass of potential allies is, at least, a good strategic goal.

It is also my view, that this “outreach” is as politically sensitive  to the Obama administration as was the China Opening was to Nixon and about which they have been equally opaque and misleading for fear of a domestic backlash. The weird, foot-dragging, dissembling, embittered, kabuki drama inside the Beltway about public statements and intelligence on whether Benghazi was caused by obscure crackpot Islamophobic film makers or a well-orchestrated terrorist attack  is in my view due to a major foreign policy strategy never having been framed in public for what it is. I’m sure people will differ strongly with me on this (which is fine), but I would characterize detente with Islamists as a strategic shift on par with the “Pivot to Asia”.

The downside here is that first, things are not likely to come out well at all, as unfinished revolutions tend to give birth to monsters; and secondly, any detente with “moderate” political Islam is an uncertain gamble based on certain exceptionally optimistic conceptions of not only what the Brotherhood might do, but about it’s very nature.

While the removal of Arab dictators resonated with American values , it was questionable realpolitik while the administration’s de facto support of  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faction over poorly organized secular liberal modernists was an act of realpolitik that required a compromise of the democratic values so recently invoked to justify abandoning Mubarak. This was cynical diplomatic flexibility worthy of Talleyrand.

Unfortunately, the most democratic thing – perhaps the only thing – about Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood supporters was his election.

The Egyptian people who are subjected now to thuggery from both Morsi’s Islamist stormtroopers and from the security forces of the Egyptian military are less sanguine than are the Brotherhood’s cheerleaders inside the administration. The Egyptian people, in fact, seem to be in revolt against domination by the Muslim Brotherhood’s shadow government.

The first question to ask in assessing if the Obama administration policy here is wise would be “What is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Americans love to personalize foreign policy, but if  Morsi were to be toppled or die, the Brotherhood will remain what it currently is, the best organized political force in Egypt and one widely influential throughout the Arab world and the West itself.

I am not an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, nor am I an Arabist by education. Most of us aren’t – a group that I fear includes most of the Obama administration officials involved in shaping this policy. Almost fifty years after King Faisal determined to export Wahhabism, more than thirty years since Khomeini’s Revolution and more than ten years since 9/11 the USG still has less in-house expertise related to Islam than it did about the Soviet Union and Communism a decade after the Berlin Blockade.

Perhaps we all should begin learning more?

Here is an analysis from FPRI; it is extremely critical but it touches on organizational aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood that I have not seen elsewhere (hat tip to David Ronfeldt). Feel free to suggest others, both for and against. The Brotherhood is a very large group with a long history that includes violence , terrorism and subversion on one hand and peacefully representing expressions of pious, middle-class, social conservatism in other places and times:

Lecture Transcript: What Every American Should Know about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Delivered by Eric Trager 

….Two years ago when I was doing my dissertation fieldwork in Cairo, I sought out interviews with leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I was referred to a man named Muhammad Morsi, now the President of Egypt. At the time, President Mubarak was ill and had gone off to Europe for operations amid a lot of mystery surrounding his health. I asked Muhammad Morsi whether the Muslim Brotherhood would run a presidential candidate if Mubarak died tomorrow. Here is what he said:

[From an audio file played by Trager]

Eric Trager: You don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood nominating a presidential candidate [if Mubarak dies tomorrow]?

Muhammad Morsi: No… because society is not ready… Our society is not ready yet to really defend its worth. We want a society to carry on its responsibilities, and we are part of this society. Another thing, if we are rushing things, then I don’t think that leads to a real stable position.

When he made that statement, I don’t think he was lying, and I don’t think he was being coy. I think that he didn’t expect that he would be faced with this reality in a mere six months. He did not expect that Mubarak would step down six months later and, to be completely honest with you, neither did I. My dissertation was entitled “Egypt: Durable Authoritarianism”—until the revolution.

What did Morsi mean when he said that the Brotherhood was trying to build a society? Let me give you some background on the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, who was a schoolteacher in Ismailia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal was then—and remains now—to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. The way it pursues this goal is by trying to Islamize Egyptian society. Through social services, education, and the mosque, it sought to make Egyptians more religious and more Islamic as a grassroots strategy for building an Islamic state. That’s very, very different from a strategy that says, “We’re going to run for president, run for the Parliament, and use that power to transform society.” Rather, the Brotherhood says, in effect, “We’re going to Islamize society to build towards power.” It was a long-term strategy; it took them 84 years before they ran for and won the presidency. So Morsi told me in 2010 that the Muslim Brotherhood was not going to run for the presidency because it was not done Islamizing Egyptian society….

Read the rest here.

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8 Responses to “US Foreign Policy, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood”

  1. L. C. Rees Says:

    I’ve read that one of the president’s favorite foreign leaders is Prime Minister Erdo?an of Turkey. If he takes Erdogan and the Sunni Islamic “Turkish Model” as his reference, Obama may be hoping, perhaps naively, that Erdogan’s model can be exported to Egypt, Libya, and other parts of the Sunni Arab world, especially since anything that comes out of Iraq, even if Iraqi “democracy” proved successful, would be tainted by being a Shia-infused model imposed by the United States as an external actor.

    More cynically, there are perhaps some that cynically calculate that the best way to cure those Sunni Arabs who desire an Islamic state of that desire is to give them one. The example of Iran may not be sufficient since its Islamic state was setup and run by apostate Shiite Persians instead of righteous Sunni Arabs. 

  2. Wednesday Morning Linkage » Duck of Minerva Says:

    [...] Safranski asks about the “nature of the Muslim Brotherhood” and worries that the Obama Administration doesn’t have enough expertise on the [...]

  3. LBousaidi Says:

    What we’re seeing in Egypt is the counter-revolution in action.  As the power vacuum continues new radical groups will start hatching and no one can predict where that’ll lead. More likely the military will continue to protect legitimacy and if they have to, take charge of things again.  What a mess! 
     

  4. joey Says:

    “While the removal of Arab dictators resonated with American values , it was questionable realpolitik while the administration’s de facto support of  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faction over poorly organized secular liberal modernists was an act of realpolitik that required a compromise of the democratic values so recently invoked to justify abandoning Mubarak. This was cynical diplomatic flexibility worthy of Talleyrand.”

    I followed the link but I think it must be going to the wrong page or something as it doesn’t show defacto support for the Muslim Brotherhood.  
     

  5. LBousaidi Says:

    A glimmer of hope for Egypt: 
    Endorsed by parties and groups from across Egypt’s political spectrum, ten-point Al-Azhar initiative aims to end country’s ongoing political crisis
    http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/0/63759/Egypt/0/AlAzhar-unveils-point-initiative-to-end-Egypts-pol.aspx

  6. zen Says:

    Hi LC,
    .
    ” Obama may be hoping, perhaps naively, that Erdogan’s model can be exported to Egypt, Libya, and other parts of the Sunni Arab world”
    .
    Arabs are not Turks. even the Turks were not what they are now economically until Turgut Ozal in the 90′s and now the crypto-Islamist AKP junked the stupid statist economics of the Kemalists 
    .
     Hi 
    LBousaidi
    .
    Counter-revoution is a good description. The old Social-Democratic Marxists of a century ago would have called it “Egypt’s Thermidor”. How influential do you think the Al-Azhar initiative will be? I know it is the premier university of the Arab Sunni world but the Brotherhood has it’s own spiritual leader, do they not?
    .
    Hi Joey,
    .
    You are right because three links somehow merged into one. Thank you for letting me know. The platform here is a real pain sometimes – obviously I need to look at updating the wordpress iteration 

  7. Mr. X Says:

    How do we distinguish between ‘Nixon going to China to flank the Soviets’ realpolitik, and actual State Dept. or other agency actions that fund and benefit the Brotherhood’s strain of Islamism? I’m not asking a rhetorical question. I sincerely want to know.

    Because the whole Benghazi ‘consulate’ (really CIA facility) as a hub for gun running to the Syrian Muslim Brothers thing has gone from ‘tin foil hat wearing anti-Obama conspiracy theory’ to something openly speculated about by United States Senators to the Secretary of State and by ex-heads of Special Forces (Boykin). Now you can attack the messenger all you want but Sy Hersh also had an article for the New Yorker about the Redirection of the Sunni jihadis towards Iran and Iranian allies back in 2007. At what point are people being too clever by half, to the point that they’re surprised when the more radical elements of the Brotherhood bite the hand that feeds them and do things like overrun the Benghazi compound (and furthermore, the length of the Benghazi assault suggests the attackers were looking for something during those eight hours)?

    We not only have folks determined to carry water for the Administration refusing to even dignify such questions with a response. We also have folks who pretend to be anti-Obama on the ‘neocon Right’ refusing to discuss it, simply stating that the CIA was in Benghazi to track guns and nothing more. Which sounds to me suspiciously like the whole premise of Fast and Furious, with the results perhaps as bad or worse in Benghazi than they were on the Border, regardless of whether the intent was ‘gunwatching’ or ‘gunrunning’ with the former used to mask the latter or vice versa. 

  8. Mr. X Says:

    ‘It is also my view, that this “outreach” is as politically sensitive  to the Obama administration as was the China Opening was to Nixon and about which they have been equally opaque and misleading for fear of a domestic backlash. The weird, foot-dragging, dissembling, embittered, kabuki drama inside the Beltway about public statements and intelligence on whether Benghazi was caused by obscure crackpot Islamophobic film makers or a well-orchestrated terrorist attack  is in my view due to a major foreign policy strategy never having been framed in public for what it is. I’m sure people will differ strongly with me on this (which is fine), but I would characterize detente with Islamists as a strategic shift on par with the “Pivot to Asia”.’

    Again, who’s cleverly trying to pursue the national interest in Washington D.C. that the Islamophobic Republican knuckle draggers are presumably too dumb to understand (see John Kerry’s exchange with Sen. Paul in particular regarding cutting off aid to Egypt and Pakistan), and who’s merely counting on a big Beltway payday from the Qataris and Saudis upon leaving ‘government service’? Is our foreign policy really ours anymore? Do you have to be a ‘tin foil hat wearer’ worried about the ‘New World Order’ to wonder if our Mideast policy is becoming a GCC subsidiary, to the point that even the ‘pro-Israel’ at the Saban Center take junkets to Doha to kiss the ring?

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