The Post reports: “Egypt’s electoral commission announced Sunday that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi would be sworn in as president, becoming the Arab world’s first elected Islamist head of state after more than a year of popular uprisings that ousted autocrats and fueled the rise of political Islam in the region.” The White House offered congratulations, with some caution. (“We look forward to working together with President-elect Morsi and the government he forms, on the basis of mutual respect, to advance the many shared interests between Egypt and the United States.”)
It would be wise to withhold praise (and aid) for now. As the report explains:
Morsi’s election is sure to viewed as an inspiration to other Islamist movements in the Muslim world. It is also likely to be viewed as a potential threat by Israel, which depended on the Mubarak regime to adhere to a 35-year-old peace treaty between the two countries, and with skepticism by some secular, female and Christian Egyptians. . . . Hamas officials are hopeful that an Islamist president will lead Egypt to reconsider the peace treaty, to more aggressively back the Palestinian national cause and to allow goods to be traded across the Gaza-Egypt border.
Former deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams explains what is ahead: “Morsi’s narrow victory sets the stage for a continuing fight in Egypt between the Brotherhood and all opposing forces — from the Army to the Copts to secular, liberal forces.” As for U.S. policy he counsels: “We should make it clear that relations between the US and Egypt will depend on whether the new Brotherhood-led government respects human rights and plays a constructive role in the region, including maintaining the peace treaty with Israel. And we should quietly consult with Egyptians who want a modern, democratic Egypt to see what we can do to help them in the long-term struggle they are now in.”
In the short term it is not certain how much authority Morsi will have. Stephen McInerney, executive director of Project on Middle East Democracy, tells me that “it’s unclear just how much political power Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood will have, following a constitutional declaration stripping key powers from the president and a court ruling resulting in the dissolution of the Brotherhood-led parliament. The days and weeks ahead will reveal much about the balance of power moving forward, as Morsi forms a government and we see whether the Brotherhood pushes back against the recent moves by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to retain control.”
There should be no going back to a corrupt and repressive dictatorship, but neither should the U.S. blindly celebrate elections for the sake of elections. Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian election, which turned into a disaster both for Israel and the Palestinians. It is behavior that counts, and we should use the array of carrots (trade, investment, aid, technical assistance, diplomatic respect) and sticks (diminishment of all of the above). We may, however, slightly influence the conduct of Egypt’s new government. But more to the point, we will maintain our own credibility as a force for liberty. We want to avoid a replay of Bahrain, where our support for the ruling government and resumption of arms shipments has turned the populace against the United States.
Some observers are glum about the future of U.S.-Egypt relations. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies predicts that “with the Muslim Brotherhood now in power, it is now safe to say that the US-Egypt alliance as we know it is dead. It’s a safe bet that Egypt will no longer serve as a pillar of America’s Middle East policy.” He contends, “Our ability to project power in the region has yet again diminished. And while we’ve seen this one coming for a while, it was a crushing blow.”
It sure would help if we had a coherent Middle East policy. Without one, the U.S. will be little more than a bystander while other powers dominate the region. As Jackson Diehl observes: “By failing to decisively use U.S. aid, diplomatic influence and military power to support the removal of dictators and the beginning of democratic transformation, he has helped tip the balance toward the old regimes — or chaos. No, the mess is not his fault. But he deserves a share of the blame.”
We should be clear with the Arab Spring nations as to our aims — promoting liberty and human rights, while opposing Islamic jihadism. It is hard to tell the players since the score card hasn’t been filled out. We should judge them not by labels they affix, but by the conduct they exhibit.