On March 25, The New York Times published an editorial effectively calling for US President Barack Obama to abandon the US alliance with Egypt.
The Obama White House’s house paper urged the president to “reassess whether an alliance that has long been considered a cornerstone of American national security policy is doing more harm than good.” The editorial concluded that Obama must “start planning for the possibility of a break in the alliance with Egypt.”
The Times’ call was based on an open letter to Obama authored by a bipartisan group of foreign policy experts that call themselves the “Working Group on Egypt.” Citing human rights violations on the part of the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Working Group urged Obama to tie US financial and military assistance to Egypt to the protection of NGOs operating in Egypt.
The self-proclaimed bipartisan band of experts is co-chaired by Robert Kagan from the Brookings Institution and Michele Dunne from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Among its prominent members are Elliott Abrams, Ellen Bork, Reuel Gerecht, Brian Katulis, Neil Hicks and Sarah Margon.
The Working Group has a history.
In January 2011, it called for Obama to force then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to resign from office. In so doing, it provided bipartisan cover for Obama’s decision to abandon the US’s most critical and dependable ally in the Arab world. Then, as now, the group’s esteemed experts argued that due to the regime’s infringement of human rights, the US could not in good conscience support it. Back in 2011, Israelis found a rare wall-to-wall unanimity of purpose in vocally and forcefully defending Mubarak from his American detractors. From the far Left to the far Right, from the IDF General Staff to the street, Israelis warned anyone who would listen that if Mubarak were forced out of power, the Muslim Brotherhood would take over and transform Egypt into a jihadist state.
Due in large part to the presence of senior Republican foreign policy hands on the Working Group, by and large Israel’s warnings were ignored in Washington. Facing the unusual Israeli consensus backing Mubarak was an American consensus insisting that “democracy” would ensure that a new liberal democratic Egypt would emerge out the ashes of the Mubarak regime.
The Americans chided us for repeating over and over again that the Muslim Brotherhood, the progenitor of al-Qaida, Hamas, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and every other major Sunni jihadist terrorist group around at the time, was a terrorist group.
We were attacked as “anti-democratic,” for insisting that the Facebook posters and twitterers on Twitter were in no position to replace Mubarak.
Who were we, the Americans scoffed, to point out that the “Facebook revolutionaries” were but a flimsy veneer which barely hid the Islamists from willfully blind Western officials and reporters who refused to admit that liberal values are not universal values – to put it mildly.
In the ensuing five years, every single warning that Israel expressed was borne out in spades.
Just as we said, right after Mubarak was forced from power, the Islamists unceremoniously dispatched with the Facebook crowd. The two million Islamists who converged on Tahrir Square to hear Sheikh Yussuf Qaradawi call for jihad and the Islamic conquest of Israel weren’t interested in democracy.
The women and Christians of Egypt soon realized, Mubarak’s overthrow, which paved the way for the Muslim Brotherhood electoral victories in 2012, did not expand their rights, it endangered their lives. As for the hapless Americans, immediately after Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi was inaugurated to serve as president of Egypt, the government began demanding that the US release from prison Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called Blind Sheikh who masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. The US embassy in Cairo was the target of jihadist riots on September 11, 2012.
Then, since Morsi was elected democratically, none of this was any sweat off the back of Washington’s Egypt experts. They supported sending F-16s to his air force even after he hosted then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Cairo, let Iranian warships traverse the Suez Canal and became a strategic ally of Hamas. They also supported his government, even though he enabled Libyan arms to flow through Egypt to Syria, transforming the war in Syria from a local dispute into the incubator for Islamic State – the precursor of which Morsi also gave a free hand to operate in the Sinai, in conjunction with Hamas.
The Americans didn’t reconsider their belief that Morsi was the guy for them, even after he allowed his Muslim Brothers to torch Coptic churches and massacre Christians. They didn’t revisit their support for the Muslim Brotherhood government even after Morsi arrogated to himself dictatorial powers that even Mubarak never dreamed of.
Perhaps if Morsi had been a responsible economic leader, and maintained the liberalization policies Mubarak enacted during his last five years in power, then defense minister Abdel Fatah Sisi wouldn’t have felt the need to remove him from power. After all, Morsi appointed Sisi to his position.
But in addition to ending even lip service to human rights, Morsi gutted the economy. By the time the military overthrew Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer of 2013, Egypt had a mere $5 billion in reserves, and according to the World Health Organization, a quarter of Egyptians were starving.
So had the Muslim Brotherhood remained in power, Egypt would not have remained a democracy.
It would have become a jihadist state as dangerous as Iran, with the economic prospects of North Korea.
In other words, five years ago, there was no chance that a post-Mubarak Egypt would become a liberal democracy. There were only two options – a US-allied tyranny that fought jihad and maintained the peace with Israel, or a jihad state, aligned with Iran, that posed an existential threat to Israel, Jordan, the US and the international economy.
Those are still the choices today, but the stakes are even higher. Due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power, the jihadist elements that gathered force in the Sinai over the past 20 years were able to organize as a more or less unified force, under the rule of Islamic State (ISIS), and in strategic alliance with Hamas. Like ISIS in Syria, ISIS in Egypt is an aggressive, dangerous group that stops at nothing to achieve its aims of expanding the ISIS empire.
The war it now fights against the Egyptian state is a total war.
To his credit, Sisi recognizes the nature of the threat and has taken steps to counter jihad that Mubarak never contemplated. The Egyptian leader recognizes that to defeat ISIS nothing less than a reformation of Islam is required. And so, in addition to fighting ISIS with everything he has, he is risking everything by taking on the jihadist belief system.
Sisi has mobilized the clerics at Al-Azhar seminary to develop an Islamic narrative that rejects jihad.
Sisi risks everything because everything is already at risk. If ISIS wins, Egypt is finished.
To win this war, he has publicly embraced Israel as an ally. He has openly sided with Israel against Hamas. Unlike Mubarak, Sisi has been fully willing to acknowledge that just because Hamas’s primary victims are Jews doesn’t mean that it isn’t a terrorist group that has to be destroyed.
Without putting too fine a point on in, for his fearless fight to the death with the forces of jihad – both in the mosque and on the battlefield – Sisi has already entered the pantheon, alongside Winston Churchill, of word historical figures. And yet, rather than embrace him and support him in his fight for Egypt and humanity, the same “experts” who called for Mubarak to be overthrown now urge Obama to abandon Sisi.
It is depressing that there is no magic bullet – like democracy – for the pathologies that afflict the Islamic world. But there is no magic bullet. And there are no easy choices for people who refuse to recognize that the natural state of man is neither liberal nor democratic.
But it is hard to accept the credibility of those who refuse to learn from their mistakes. It is harder still as well to listen to the “moral calls” of those who refuse to accept that because their past advice was heeded, thousands have died, and if their current calls are heeded, millions of lives will be imperiled.