Washington’s Undemocratic Bet on the Brotherhood

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After a visit to Washington in the spring of 2012 and multiple meetings with American politicians and researchers, it has become clear to me that the American administration built its policy towards Egypt after the revolution on a strategic bet on the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). In the American view, the Brotherhood is one side of the equation for “governing Egypt,” and the military establishment is the other.  

Washington now looks to the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office and FJP leaders to take the place of the former regime’s elite. Washington expects a “positive contribution” from the Brotherhood in protecting its interests, namely, Israel’s security, oil supply, securing the Suez Canal from terrorism, and good economic and trade relations. Indeed, Washington’s expectations for the “effectiveness” of the Brotherhood exceed those of the former president. This strategic bet on the Brotherhood is part of a regional American bet that parties and currents of the Arab religious right will come to power – with the exception of the Gulf – and that they will be able to lead the Arabs to an experience like that of the Turkish Justice and Development Party without threatening US interests.

Indeed, after the election of President Mohammed Morsi (and sidestepping conspiratorial and insulting interpretations of a US role in the presidential elections where Morsi won by majority) we saw the “effectiveness” of the Brotherhood in protecting American interests begin to be translated into policy. President Morsi and the sovereign agencies succeeded in mediating between Palestinian factions and the right-wing Israeli government to end the recent aggression in Gaza and reach a security agreement to calm the situation, subject to the continuation of Egyptian guarantees and with American consent. President Morsi also reformulated the Egyptian stance towards Syria to align with Washington and its allies in Turkey and the Gulf in seeking to topple the regime of the dictator Assad. The renewal of Egyptian relations with Iran, an ally of President Assad, did not negate that by any means. Morsi, along with the Brotherhood and the FJP, cemented strategic cooperation with Turkey and Qatar, and Egypt started to move regionally in the Turkish-Qatari orbit. On terrorist threats and the growing presence of violent groups in the Sinai, the President, again contrary to the conspiracy theorists, gave political cover for operations carried out by the armed forces and security services in the Sinai, and opened the doors of security coordination with Washington. This effectiveness of the Brotherhood, which in some of its policies does not contradict Egyptian national interests, pushes the American administration to continue its strategic bet on the Brotherhood and strengthen their relations with it. There are other factors behind this view, although they lack objectivity.

Many voices contribute to the US administration’s policy towards Egypt. At the forefront of these is the embassy in Cairo, which circulated the claim that the Brotherhood had organizational, mobilizing, and financial capabilities that are not available to their competitors, enabling them to control Egyptian policy and dominate major events like presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as the formation of governing coalitions. The embassy also circulated another claim that is hardly objective: that the Brotherhood, compared to the rest of the parties and movements of political Islam in the Salafi cells, are moderate and abide by democratic procedures. Finally, the US embassy in Cairo and prominent voices in Washington have created the false impression that because the opposition is weak, divided, has a limited popular presence, and is impossible to deal with in a democratic framework, the US must bet on the Brotherhood alone, and close behind them the armed forces, which constitutes the other side of the ruling equation in Egypt.

Some of these claims are not objective and lead Washington to the same miscalculations they made under Mubarak. The organizational, mobilizing, and financial capabilities of the Brotherhood have allowed them to win elections, but not to rule Egypt effectively and in the interests of the wider public. The Brotherhood’s commitment to abide by democratic procedures, which Washington boils down to simply participating in elections, is no different than that of the Salafis and the Gama’a Islamiyya’s Building and Development Party). But even more dangerous than the Brotherhood’s’ contesting and winning elections is their removal of fundamental pillars of democracy such as the rule of law, the impartiality of executive and administrative agencies of the state, national consensus on the constitution, the key laws to ensure democratic transition, and human rights. The elected president, who I respect as being elected legitimately, attacked the independence of the judicial branch. The Brotherhood and its party are implementing an integrated plan to control the executive and administrative agencies of the state (not seemingly for political positions) and to be a substitute for the dominance of the old ruling party. Consensus on the constitution was ignored completely, and Egypt was pushed to hold a popular referendum under extremely polarized social conditions. Today, Egypt is again being pushed to parliamentary elections under the same polarized conditions, slowed down only by a court ruling on the elections law. Violations of human rights and dignity continue with impunity, and the lack of real procedures to restructure the security services means we continue to forfeit respect for our rights and freedoms. The claim that the Egyptian opposition is weak and absent from the street is false, and so is the American claim that the opposition does not want democracy and is incapable of it. The call to change the rules of the constitutional, legal, and executive political process is unjust. And stopping human rights violations and ensuring the integrity of elections as conditions for participating in them is clearly democratic. In the final analysis, we must reject the limited democracy of the ballot box that has no guarantees of fairness, and of a Parliament with an opposition that is merely there for décor.

The idea that the Brotherhood is effective in protecting US interests is built on the same false impressions that led Washington to strategically bet on the group and its party. This gives current American policy towards Egypt the same undemocratic character as under Mubarak. The only real change is that the NDP elite has been replaced by the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office, and that the US administration is celebrating elections in Egypt as evidence of a democratic transition (as Washington was not able to describe the policies of the former regime in the language of democracy).

Today, as under the last president, Washington is silent about the unjust political process, and does not object to a flawed constitution that takes away rights, nor does it reject the continued marginalization of women and repeated violations of human rights. Today, as under the last president, Washington publicizes the weakness of the opposition and excludes them from their calculations, and asks nothing from them except to participate in elections that have no guarantees of procedural integrity. Today, as under the last president, Washington has been pushing the line that the ruling party is the only one that can manage the country’s policy and that there are no alternatives, and it ignores that this ineffective government has no policies to improve catastrophic economic and living conditions. Today, unlike the time of the former president, the American policy elite has turned to the Guidance Office and the leaders of the FJP, and Washington celebrates their lasting desire to hold elections as the key to democratic transition in Egypt. And yet they are silent on violations of the rule of law, the stripping away of the judiciary’s independence, and the bias of state systems. All of these prevent a true democratic transformation.

Washington is a strategic ally to the Brotherhood and its bet on them has been bolstered by the promotion of a false impression by the US embassy in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood is protecting American interests, and is using Washington’s silence on the shortcomings of the democratic transformation and unjust rules of the political process to increase pressure on the opposition and proceed with controlling the state. Washington is biased towards the Brotherhood and underestimates the opposition and the popular sectors that are opposed to the current situation, and it ignores them while promoting the democracy of the Brotherhood as having the values of American democracy based on rule of law, freedom, human rights, and rotation of power. Once again, faulty calculations of Egyptian reality drive the American administration to search for a single partner who can effectively protect its interests, and then to marry the role of that partner to the role of the military establishment. It is here also that Washington goes against all its talk of supporting democracy and human rights in Egypt; its bet on the Brotherhood is undemocratic or weakens electoral democracy in the best case.

The international scene is much wider than American policy gives it credit for, but Washington, including Congress, research centers, and public opinion, remains more diverse in reading the Egyptian situation than the administration and the biased US embassy in Cairo. It remains necessary for the opposition to communicate with international actors and with other decision-making centers in the United States; and the latter clearly goes beyond merely taking meetings, under insulting and biased arrangements, with official American delegations to Cairo.

A verion of this article orginally appeared in Arabic in Egyptian daily al-Watan.

Amr Hamzawy studied political science and developmental studies in Cairo, The Hague, and Berlin. He previously taught political science at Cairo University and the Free University of Berlin. After finishing his doctoral studies and five years of teaching in Cairo and Berlin, Hamzawy joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Washington, DC) between 2005 and 2009 as a senior associate for Middle East Politics. Between 2009 and 2010, he served as the research director of the Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment in Beirut, Lebanon. He joined the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to serve today. His academic publications include books on Arab political thought, democracy, human rights and Islamism. He is a former member of parliament and a member of the National Salvation Front. 

Photo: Maureen Clare

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