It is a relief to Israel, moderate Sunni countries and ultimately to the United States that Egypt is no longer in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. That said, aside from the squandered Green Revolution in Iran, there is no country that held such promise and fell as short as the nation that used to lead the Arab world.
When Egyptians dumped Hosni Mubarak, the majority didn’t vote for secular candidates in the first elections, as the Tunisians did. The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won Egypt’s presidential election with fifty-one percent of the vote, a slim majority but a majority all the same. Meanwhile, the totalitarian Salafist party—which is more or less the political arm of al-Qaeda—won twenty-four percent of the parliamentary vote, meaning that, unlike the Tunisians, a substantial majority of Egyptians went for Islamists of one stripe or another.
Morsi’s power grabs, his incompetence, his lunatic politics—symbolized by the appointment of a governor associated with a terrorist group that murdered fifty-eight tourists near the city of Luxor in 1997—were too much for even a nation as conservative and Islamist as Egypt. Millions of people—the overwhelming majority of them fellow Muslims—took to the streets to demand his removal from power, just as they had against Mubarak before him.
The army took care of the rest. General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Morsi in June of 2013 and immediately declared war against the Muslim Brotherhood. Millions of Egyptians celebrated Sisi’s coup as a revolutionary “correction.”
So while Egypt never became an Iran on the Nile, it did not become a democracy either. It’s right back where it started. The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed all over again. The new regime and its supporters are no more liberal and democratic than Mubarak’s or Morsi’s. In some ways, they’re worse. Sisi’s regime reeks of Stalinism these days. In March of this year, more than five hundred Muslim Brotherhood officials were sentenced to death in one swoop. Many of those sentences were commuted to life, but the regime did it again the very next day and sentenced six hundred more.
In essence, a pro-American autocrat eventually has been replaced by a less pro-American totalitarian. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is the worst of all worlds — except for the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt now acts in ways we do not like and cannot influence. Domestically, its political system has regressed by any measuring stick on human rights. In the region, it is willing to fund radical Sunni rebels in Iraq and Syria to counteract Iran, which it views as unrestrained by a weak and confused U.S. president. In the meantime, we failed in three different regimes to express solidarity with and provide even rhetorical support for secularists. Moreover, Egypt owes little, if anything, to the United States. Most of the country is convinced that we were in league with and backed the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even with exquisite U.S. policy, it’s unlikely that Egypt would have turned into an immediate success story like Tunisia. Unlike Morocco, Egypt lacks a reformist monarch who presides over a program of gradual reform. (In Morocco, Totten explains, “Change occurs slowly, deliberately, with forethought, and it’s done by consensus. It’s working in Morocco because the change is liberal and conservative at the same time. The system is opening up, but the monarchy keeps it anchored. The country isn’t breaking apart like Libya or Syria, nor is one side vanquishing the other, as in Egypt.”) It is impossible to predict whether different U.S. leadership would have led to a more favorable result. But certainly the administration made every mistake in the book, thereby lessening our influence and letting events drift in dangerous ways:
It failed to influence Mubarak to modernize and liberalize.
It recognized too late that he was going to be toppled.
It vacillated between support for Mubarak and support for a revolution.
It overestimated the sophistication of secular elements and was stunningly naive about the Muslim Brotherhood.
It embraced Morsi too tightly.
It couldn’t decide whether his ouster was a coup.
It then sent entirely mixed signals — leading to the impression we were both disloyal to a traditional ally and indifferent to human rights.
In short, we have managed to lessen our influence at a time we badly need pro-Western, stable governments aligned against an Iran-Syria-Russia axis. I’d be curious to hear what policy the Obama-Hillary Clinton-John Kerry brain trust thought it was pursuing.
Now would be a good time for some confidence building — or rather time for rebuilding our allies’ confidence. A resolute U.S. stance in the Geneva talks, a more robust approach to Syria and unqualified support for Israel’s vanquishing a common enemy (Hamas) would be a start. Recognizing, supporting and funding pro-reform, pro-modernizing groups and figures while trying to incentivize the government to expand civil liberties would be a useful step.
But honestly, Egypt and other wavering allies in the region will not return to the U.S. fold unless and until they see strong and reliable leadership and a clear enunciation of U.S. interests and values. Egypt won’t risk associating with a weak horse, let alone one with no rider. As long as we cut our military, chase after an Iran deal, call for Israel’s restraint against Hamas, remain paralyzed over Iraq and let the Russians walk all over us — and Ukraine — why should Egypt listen to us? If we want Egypt to follow Anwar Sadat and not Gamal Abdel Nasser, we had better convince its leaders and its people that U.S. friendship is worth something.