Posted on 13-09-2012
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

David Frum has an odd article up criticizing Barack Obama for his “Foolish Embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood.”  According to Frum:

Nobody remembers now, but after Mubarak’s fall there was much debate whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed to participate in Egypt’s new political system. It is hardly illiberal to ban a party that aims at the overthrow of a liberal state. West Germany banned neo-Nazi parties after 1945; the post-1989 Czech Republic forbade former communist officials to hold government jobs – and both democracies are stronger for it. In the end, the Muslim Brotherhood escaped the ban by promising not to run a candidate for president, a promise it promptly broke.

First let us begin with the prime fallacy in Frum’s argument.  Unless he intervened in the debate like prior American interventions in Latin America (and thankfully he did not do something that silly), this was not America’s decision to make.  American intervention here would have backfired badly on all concerned.  Years of blind American support for Mubarak has led to widespread distrust of America on the Egyptian street.  Obama did the wise thing, he stayed the hell out of another country’s political debate.

Let us also dismiss the comparison to the Nazi ban in Germany.  That is an extremely unique situation based on the horrors of the Second World War and German determination to prevent such extreme groups from ever returning to power.  It is rarely duplicated in western democracies (the American ban on the Communist Party in the height of Cold War paranoia is an exception) for a very good reason, because it is an extremely illiberal act.  The ban in Germany is also sustainable because the neo-Nazis are a fringe group despised by German society at large.  The Muslim Brotherhood is not a fringe group and has mass support.

The problem with quasi-secular incompetent dictatorships like Mubarak is that they often leave religious fundamentalists as the most organized opposition to the regime.  Not co-opted by the tools of the autocratic regime and often subject to persecution, Islamic groups often emerge as the most coherent opposition to dictatorship.  Perversely, the dictators often allowed the Islamists to remain the only organized opposition to marginalize secular opponents and to gain support in the west from fears of the Islamist bogeyman – Mubarak did both. Iran under the Shah was another example.

It is true that the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in politics did cause unease.  They were the most organized political opposition to Mubarak and that gave them a huge advantage over the rest of the fractious opposition.  To soothe such fears they promised to not run a candidate in the Presidential elections.  As Frum notes they broke that promise.

Banning the Muslim Brotherhood would have been a profoundly stupid move that would have triggered significant unrest.  It would have given them instant martyrdom.  Given the lack of administrative experience of the opposition, it is very likely that when they eventually came to power it would have been in an even stronger position.

Turkey demonstrates this scenario very well.  The regime instituted by Ataturk aggressively excluded devout Muslims from the public sphere – to the extent that women were not allowed to wear headscarves in government buildings.  The military was the power behind the throne and repeatedly intervened by open or quasi coups.  This system survived until the 1990s.  By then the global consensus had moved to democracy.  The communist bloc had collapsed.  All the dictatorships in Latin America were gone.  And Turkish politicians were extremely corrupt and incompetent.  The Islamists were the only alternative left standing, and they kept winning elections only to have the army force them out.  Eventually the Turkish army had to bow to popular pressure leaving Recep Erdogan and his Islamists firmly ensconced in power.  Erdogan’s competence compared to his predecessors has kept him in power.

Egypts generals were likely aiming for the old Turkish model, but for now Morsi has outflanked them.  Morsi has displayed some disturbing tendencies of attacking critics for lese majeste, but has not yet become a Sunni reincarnation of Ayatollah Khomeini.  For now there are checks on his behavior from the Army, parliament and civil society.

There are many on the right who bemoan our abandonment of the Pharaoh to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power.  This is an extremely short sighted view that contributes to widespread distrust in the Arab World (along with charges of hypocrisy) against the self proclaimed “leader of the Free World”.

Ultimately I see three likely (though not exhaustive) scenarios resulting from the Muslim league assuming power:

  • They turn out to be spectacularly incompetent, resulting in a drop of support (e.g. the Ayatollahs in Iran) and eventual defeat at the ballot box.
  • They turn out to be competent stewards of Egypt’s economy and manage to tap into its human capital.
  • They lapse into populist claptrap like Hugo Chavez, take delight in poking Uncle Sam in public forums or worse and drive the Egyptian economy to a ditch.  They then rig elections like Chavez to stay in power.

The third scenario is the most disturbing.  However in this scenario, Egypt rapidly loses military aid and is not really in a position to cause too much damage – help that they have no oil either.  They will be a nuisance but not a threat.

Ultimately it just is not our problem.  Egypt deserves the right to do what the United States has done for over 200 years – choose its own leaders and chart its own destiny.  Blaming Barack Obama for his “foolish embrace” of the party that was likely to win a fair election is silly.  Engaging Egypt and insentivizing it for good behavior was the smart thing to do.  If Egypt fails to do just that, it is Egypt’s loss.

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