Since his recent election, Egypt’s Islamist president is executing a series of breath-taking power grabs that confirm the worst fears of his detractors and confound the expectations of observers who expected the obscure, uncharismatic Morsi to be a toothless, figurehead president. But, as I wrote at the time of his election, Egypt has a history of obscure, uncharismatic ‘second men’ occupying the office of the presidency by default and then entrenching themselves in power. Sadat was generally underestimated as Nasser’s yes-man vice-president until he succeeded him after Nasser’s death, upon which he immediately engaged in an existential struggle against the competing ‘centers of power’ that sought to overturn him. Emerging victorious, Sadat then turned the entire ship of state around, notably in foreign policy and the peace treaty with Israel. When Sadat was assassinated by Islamists in 1980 and his vice-president succeeded him, expectations of the unimaginative Mubarak were low; but he managed to consolidate his power and maintain it for thirty years.
The squat, sixty-year-old unknown, Mohamed Morsi, became the Muslim Brotherhood’s last-minute, default presidential candidate when the party boss, Khairat Shater, was disqualified. Since his election, Morsi has flexed the muscles of the Executive office- unchecked by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Legislative- and pushed back against the secular, hostile Judiciary. Faced with what amounted to a coup by legislative decree that arrogated all powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Morsi bided his time and exploited a terrorist attack in the Sinai to counter by a stunning coup of his own, firing the top military generals of all branches of the Armed Services as well as the powerful Intelligence agency. The latest, most troubling move on Morsi’s part was to crack down on criticism in the media. It is hard to not to see an out-and out autocracy in the making.
And where is U.S. foreign policy in all of this? Many Egyptians watch, bemused, as events unfold with what can be interpreted as tacit consent by the U.S. Some speculate on an understanding between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Foreign Office; an understanding that is vociferously resented by Egypt’s Coptic Christians, some of whom protested Secretary Clinton’s meeting with Morsi when she visited Cairo this summer and expressed their anger by pelting her with rotten tomatoes. But the fact is that it is good policy for the U.S. to avoid at all costs the appearance of siding against a democratically-elected president and parliament, Islamist though they might be. It may also be the case that the U.S. Foreign Office and the Pentagon have at least as comfortable an understanding with the younger generation of military generals Morsi appointed to replace the geriatric Marshall Tantawi and his cohorts. Like the U.S.-educated Morsi himself and his Prime Minister Qandil, many of this younger generation of Egyptian military received training in the U.S. rather than in the Soviet Union, as was the norm in the Nasser years. The non-alarmist reaction by Israel seems to confirm the understanding over the peace treaty.
But Secretary Clinton may be making a serious mistake. She may be discounting the history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a history that has proved, over and over again, that they are not to be trusted. Since the inception of the organization, one Egyptian ruler after another has tried co-opting the popular support for the religious appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood, only to have them turn against him. King Farouk tried to present himself as the Caliph of his day, and lost his throne; Nasser sought Brotherhood support for his revolution, until they attempted to assassinate him; Sadat, in his later years, tried to re-invent himself as a devout Muslim, and was assassinated by a Brotherhood officer; Mubarak alternately mollified and cracked down on the Brotherhood, and watched them reap the benefits of the revolution that overturned him.
Secretary Clinton may be counting on a policy of giving Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood administration enough rope to hang itself. Nowhere in the Arab world has an Islamist government been tested by actually coming to power: in office, the slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood will come up short against the pragmatic realities of Egypt’s monumental economic problems, and their failure will be their undoing. But anyone who thinks they can dance with this particular devil should take another look at Egypt’s contemporary history.