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At Cairo University on June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama addressed the Islamic world. He promised a new era in U.S. relations with Muslim countries, declaring that “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.” As important as the president’s words was his audience: Nestled among the crowd were ten members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, whom the U.S. embassy had invited. For American diplomats, the Brotherhood had gone from pariah to partner.
There has been no shortage of U.S. officials rushing to embrace the Brotherhood. On a day-to-day level, Anne Patterson, a career diplomat who became U.S. ambassador to Egypt in 2011 (she has since been nominated to be assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs), lobbied for ties with the group. On January 18, 2012, she met Brotherhood spiritual leader Mohammed Badie. The meeting was a game-changer: If Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s soon-to-be president, was the equivalent of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then Badie was Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
And Patterson was no rogue. Six months later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met the newly inaugurated Morsi at the presidential palace in Cairo and promised him “the strong support of the United States,” a moment beamed across the Islamic world on Al Jazeera. To drive home the point, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta traveled to Cairo and also promised the Muslim Brotherhood government strong American support.
American officials may have projected moderation onto the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Egyptians suffered reality. Within a year, Morsi’s missteps transformed the Egyptian army from symbol of autocracy to savior of democracy. Egyptians poured into the street and cheered when, on July 3, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, commander of the Egyptian armed forces, seized power.
Despite his earlier embrace of the Brotherhood, Obama professed neutrality. “The United States is not aligned with, and does not support, any particular Egyptian political party or group,” the National Security Council was informed three days after the coup. Neutrality, however, not only won no friends, but also forfeited a unique opportunity to seize the advantage in a global struggle against political Islamism.
Here U.S. Cold War strategy is instructive. Faced with an ideological battle against Communism, President Harry S. Truman embraced “rollback.” Some balked at the cost, especially after Truman moved to check Communist aggression on the Korean peninsula, but any comparison today between North and South Korea proves Truman’s prescience. Many of Truman’s successors were more hesitant, because the Soviet development of a nuclear bomb made direct confrontation too dangerous, but they still pursued containment. None would have ever accepted losing a country to Communism, even via the ballot box. No president gave up on the desire to check Soviet influence. Richard Nixon helped flip Egypt out of the Soviet sphere, and even Jimmy Carter sought to punish Soviet aggression in Afghanistan.
It was Ronald Reagan, however, who really revived rollback, ultimately setting off a chain of events from Latin America to Eastern Europe to Afghanistan that would lead to the Soviet Union’s demise. While liberals caricature Reagan as a trigger-happy cowboy, Reagan’s real weapon was rhetoric. He did not hesitate to call a spade a spade, even when top aides urged moral compromise.
With the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States should recognize that it is party to an ideological battle just as vital. Rather than punish a coup supported by tens of millions of Egyptians, the White House should view this as an opportunity and use the unprecedented Arab anger at the Brotherhood as a chance to roll back its influence, with the goal of defeating an ideology that is anathema to U.S. interests and security.
Make no mistake: The Muslim Brotherhood is about ideology. Its founder, a 21-year-old Egyptian schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna, taught that there is no aspect of life that falls outside Islam’s bounds. “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet,” Banna declared. His followers put his words into action, seeking to cleanse Egypt of Western influence by any means. A 1946 U.S. intelligence report identified the Brotherhood’s Islamism as posing almost as much of a threat to Western liberalism as did Communism. As recently as 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Web portal proclaimed, “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Quran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
Perhaps the State Department can be forgiven for finding the Brotherhood so alluring. During its decades in opposition, banned by the Egyptian government, the Brotherhood promised democracy to diplomats, theocracy to its followers, and prosperity to Egypt’s middle class. Many Brotherhood exiles found themselves in the United States and Europe, where they engaged with Western officials. Activists like Morsi learned how to interact with Westerners, speak their language, and lobby governments, while their core ideology remained unchanged. Instead of liberalizing these overseas Brothers, their Western interlude taught them how to formulate effective propaganda. “I must speak in a way that is appropriate for the ear hearing me,” Banna’s grandson Tariq Ramadan famously counseled. (Ramadan, banned from the United States during the George W. Bush administration for his terrorist ties, had his visa reinstated by President Obama.)
When riots spread across the Arab world on September 11, 2012, Ramadan’s philosophy of deceit was on prominent display. While the death of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens focused attention on Libya, Egypt saw almost as much violence on that day. When Egyptian Islamists tried to storm the U.S. embassy in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood used its English Twitter feed to profess relief that “none of @USembassycairo staff was hurt.” In Arabic, however, the group called on “Egyptians [to] rise to defend the Prophet.”
Now that the Brotherhood has revealed its true self, the Egyptian coup enables a new start. What happens in Egypt does not stay in Egypt; for decades, if not centuries, Egypt has set political and cultural trends throughout the region. Egyptian soap operas are the staple of television sets from Doha to Dearborn; for generations, Egypt’s greatest exports have been not textiles and pharmaceuticals, but rather schoolteachers who are ubiquitous from Casablanca to Kuwait. Nasserism spread like wildfire from Egypt in the 1950s, claiming a handful of Arab monarchies along the way.
An equally great Egyptian intellectual export was the Muslim Brotherhood. Seven years after its founding in 1928, it had expanded into Syria, and during World War II it established branches in Palestine and Jordan. By 1948, the group claimed a half million adherents. In subsequent decades, it has grown steadily. Its offshoots control governments in Gaza, Tunisia, Sudan, and Turkey; influence Islamic parties in Morocco and Pakistan; and dominate the opposition in Syria, Yemen, and Jordan.
For the Brotherhood to suffer rejection on its home turf was a crippling rebuke and a significant loss of momentum. As shocking as the Egyptian army’s crackdown might have been to some, it was also restrained. Despite the deaths of hundreds, Egypt is no Syria: Egyptian police may clash with Brotherhood supporters in the street, but they do not target women and children, nor do they seek to terrorize the general population. Egypt may face years of Brotherhood insurgency, but that is a price the Egyptian public appears willing to pay to avoid a suffocating theocracy.
Let us hope that Egypt returns to democracy, under a constitution replete with checks and balances. But even short of that, it is useful to consider how Egypt under a military-backed government might differ from its experience under the Brotherhood. On taking power, the Brotherhood scrapped Egypt’s cautious approach to Hamas, the Brotherhood affiliate that dominates the Gaza Strip, and instead openly embraced it. The Brotherhood threatened to annul Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and stood back as Sinai descended into chaos. It revised the constitution to place the state in charge of morality and reserved the right to determine women’s duties. In the post-Brotherhood order, women can work and pursue education, and Egypt is cooperating with Israel to root out Islamist terrorism in the Sinai and preserve the two nations’ effective, if cold, peace. Most important, the new government has, for the first time, shown the will to shut the tunnels beneath the Egypt-Gaza border through which Hamas supplies itself with weaponry.
Rather than boycott the Egyptian military as it isolates Hamas, the United States should reward it. The Palestinian terror group now teeters. Diplomats have a penchant for seeking to engage rogues, but the Egyptian strategy shows quarantining them to be more effective. Just as Morsi did with Egyptians, Hamas leaders promised Palestinians honest government and pragmatic economic policies. What they delivered instead was religious extremism, a repressive social order, and a dictatorship every bit as corrupt as and more brutal than the Fatah regime that preceded them.
Turkey, too, shows the false promise of Islamism. Western officials celebrated Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a moderate and suggested that, under his leadership, Turkey would be a model for Islamic democracy. Erdogan, who once quipped that “democracy is like a streetcar; you ride it as far as you need and then you step off,” has been true to his word: He has imprisoned more journalists than Russia, China, or Iran; confiscated businesses from entrepreneurs who supported separation between mosque and state, and transferred their titles to Islamist cronies; expunged women from top positions; and embraced both Hamas and the genocidal Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir. It got worse: He endorsed Yasin al-Qadi, a Saudi businessmen and suspected al-Qaeda financier labeled a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the U.S. Treasury, declaring when he came under criticism in Turkey, “I know Mr. Qadi. I believe in him as I believe in myself.” And Erdogan has transformed Turkey into a sanctions-busting lifeline for Iran.
Instead of embracing Erdogan as a partner, the White House should seek to roll Turkey back. Erdogan should be persona non grata in Washington. The U.S. government should ramp up free and uncensored broadcasting into Turkey, lionize its prisoners of conscience, punish Erdogan’s flouting of sanctions, and reach out to Turkey’s secular Kurdish parties. Not only does Turkey not belong in Europe, but it is dangerous to keep it within consensus-driven NATO, whose operations Turkey already hampers in order to advance Erdogan’s Islamist agenda. In short, Turkey should be treated as, at best, the equivalent of Cold War Yugoslavia and, at worst, post-1956 Hungary.
Rollback need not all be negative. It can mean fortifying countries such as Jordan and Morocco, loyal allies fighting their own battles against extremists, and it can mean engaging with anti-extremist Islamic groups in the United States, such as Zainab al-Suwaij’s American Islamic Congress and M. Zuhdi Jasser’s American Islamic Forum for Democracy, rather than Muslim Brotherhood proxies such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America.
Ideological conflicts marked the 20th century. Millions died to enable liberalism to defeat fascism and Nazism, and hundreds of thousands more died in the struggle against Communism. Great presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan understood that there could be no compromise with ideologies aligned against liberal values. The only answer to such supremacist movements is confrontation and rollback. During his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama declared, “Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” Perhaps. But defeating them can.
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