Thirty million people in the streets of Egypt, with the help of the Egyptian military, have saved the United States from the consequences of its disastrous policy of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood since President Barack Obama came to office. Just months after his inauguration in 2009, Mr. Obama appeared in Cairo to address the Muslim world. He ensured that members of the Muslim Brotherhood were seated in the front row of the auditorium at Cairo University. Since the group was still officially banned in Egypt, no one from President Hosni Mubarak’s administration could attend. The message from the seating arrangement was unmistakable: even at the price of snubbing his official host, Mr. Obama recognized the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate player in Egyptian politics. Already, this was clearly interference in the internal affairs of the Egyptian state.
Former British ambassador Charles Crawford later characterized Obama’s quixotic address in the following way: “It boiled down to a well delivered speech full of clever emollient phrases that ultimately sent a message of appeasement to militant Islamist tendencies: Under my restrained leadership the United States will respect and accept conservative forms of Islam. Even if Islamism gets too aggressive we don’t plan to do much about it.”
Why would the United States want to give the green light to militant Islam? Wasn’t militant Islam, after all, the problem? Of course, President Obama has never publicly admitted that it is as a form of the “violent extremism” he opposes. But perhaps the Obama administration thought there was no alternative, or perhaps it was simply ignorant of the true nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. Most likely it thought that the Brotherhood could be tamed if it were given political responsibility. At any event, its representatives said some extraordinarily strange things. At a House Intelligence Committee hearing on February 10, 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the Muslim Brotherhood as a “largely secular” organization with “no overarching agenda.” This was a rather unusual characterization of a group whose motto is: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” If that is secular, what might the religious be?
As for an overarching agenda, the de facto spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi proclaimed: “Islam is a comprehensive school of thought, a creed, an ideology, and cannot be completely satisfied but by [completely] controlling society and directing all aspects of life, from how to enter the toilet to the construction of the state.” That means the rule of sharia (Islamic jurisprudence), to which the Muslim Brotherhood has been dedicated since its inception in 1928. The other objective is the restoration of the universal caliphate. The vehicle for doing both is establishment of a one-party totalitarian state.
Totalitarians Don't Share Power
The totalitarian parties on which the Muslim Brotherhood was modeled – Lenin’s Communists, Mussolini’s Fascists, and Hitler’s National Socialists – showed no inclination toward moderation once having obtained political power. All of them remained true to their principles. Once in power after Mubarak’s overthrow, President Mohammed Morsi gave a hint of what was to come by openly calling for Shaykh Omar Abdel-Rahman’s repatriation to Egypt from the U.S. federal prison in which he is incarcerated. The famous blind Shaykh was considered the spiritual inspiration behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and is serving a life sentence in connection with a subsequent plot to bomb New York landmarks and tunnels. Might this have been a sign of trouble to come?
In January, a congressional delegation, including Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, were in Cairo visiting President Morsi when an embarrassing pair of videos appeared on the site of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), documenting the virulent anti-Semitism Morsi had expressed in campaign appearances in 2010. In a September, 2010 interview, Morsi gave a preview of what Egypt’s approach to Israel might be:
Either [you accept] the Zionists and everything they want, or else it is war. This is what these occupiers of the land of Palestine know – these blood-suckers, who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs…We must confront this Zionist entity… We want a country for the Palestinians on the entire land of Palestine, on the basis of [Palestinian] citizenship. All the talk about a two-state solution and about peace is nothing but an illusion…
In another 2010 appearance at a rally in his hometown in the Nile Delta, Morsi said:
We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews.” Morsi added that Egyptian children “must feed on hatred; hatred must continue… The hatred must go on for God and as a form of worshiping him.
Everyone in the U.S. delegation got terribly embarrassed over these indiscretions but cleared their throats and continued their trip after President Morsi assured them that the remarks were taken out of context. What might that context have been? Could it have been the context of the Qur’an with its proclamations of everlasting curses upon the Jews? Or perhaps the context of the Muslim Brotherhood program itself – or of its Hamas branch which promises in its charter to eliminate Israel? In either case, how anyone could have been surprised by what Morsi had said after more than eight decades of such rhetoric from the Muslim Brotherhood and its branches must have been in a state of either willful or blissful ignorance. Nonetheless, support from the United States continued. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Morsi in March when he released $250 million in American aid, with promises of more to come.
The only way the United States could have behaved in the way in which it has was by not taking the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood seriously. We still don’t, which explains the many lamentations over Morsi’s downfall (such protestations were notably absent when Mubarak fell in much the same way). Even intelligent commentators like Fouad Ajami can make statements that, “When the Obama administration could not call the coup d'état by its name, we put on display our unwillingness to honor our own democratic creed...” Come again? Since when does our democratic creed require support for the restoration of a party whose principles are inimical to that creed and to the underlying principle of democracy that all people are created equal?
Bernard Lewis predicted this mess when he said that the rush to early elections after the fall of Mubarak would lead, as did similar events in the Weimar Republic, to the ascension of the most dangerous elements society – meaning victory for the Muslim Brotherhood. In an interview with David Horowitz in the Jerusalem Post (February 25, 2011), Lewis cautioned that the discourse in Egypt is still "religiously defined" and that "the language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to the great masses." How many Egyptians, for instance, actually believe that Copts and Muslims, men and women, believers and nonbelievers, are equal—to say nothing of Jews and Muslims? Pressing for elections now, he warned, could lead to catastrophe, as only religious parties are well enough organized to take advantage of them. (Lewis preferred first to see the development of local self-governing institutions.) Therefore, he said, "I don't see elections, Western-style, as the answer to the problem. I see it rather as a dangerous aggravation of a problem. The Western-style election...has no relevance at all to the situation in most Middle Eastern countries. It can only lead to one direction, as it did in [Weimar] Germany, for example." He was right. True to form, once in power, the Muslim brotherhood and Morsi went methodically about trying to monopolize power. Morsi assigned himself powers that a Pharaoh would have envied.
Sudanese writer Al-Hajj Warraq, got it exactly right in an Egyptian television interview last year. He said:
Democracy is about more than just the ballot box. Democracy is a culture engraved upon the cerebral box before it is the ballot box. One cannot talk about freedom in the absence of free minds. The tragedy of the Arab Spring is that when the tyrannical regimes fell, the fruits were reaped by movements that preach closed-mindedness, rather than free thinking. The outcome will be regimes that are worse than those that were toppled.
Apparently, the Egyptian people – at least the 30 million who were in the streets marching against Morsi – agreed with him. Unfortunately, the United States has not.
When Hosni Mubarak was arrested in 2011 after his overthrow, no United States senators visited him in prison or in his prison hospital. Why not? He had been an ally of the United States for almost three decades. The answer is that such a visit would have clearly telegraphed to the Egyptian people that the United States supported Mubarak’s restoration.
Why are Americans Backing the Muslim Brotherhood?
Likewise, what were the Egyptian people expected to make of the visits earlier this month by Senators McCain and Graham to Mohammed Morsi under house arrest and to, of all people, the Deputy Guide of the Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shater, also under arrest? No matter what intentions Senators McCain and Graham may have had, the choreography of the visits clearly indicated support by the United States for a Muslim Brotherhood restoration. On top of that, President Obama has now canceled the long-planned military exercises with the Egyptian military, further expressing his disapproval. These actions obviously encourage and incite the pro-Morsi opposition. The Brotherhood will be less likely to reach an accommodation with the new government because of them.
However, accommodation is not in the cards, anyway. The Muslim Brotherhood thought, no doubt, that with its accession to power in Egypt, arguably the most important Arab country, it was well on its way to realizing its millenarian dream of expansion and the reconstruction of the caliphate. Arab spring eruptions elsewhere in the Middle East were also going its way. Therefore, to lose the pinnacle of power in Egypt places its members in a life or death struggle. Since this struggle is at its heart every bit as ideological as were the struggles in the Weimar Republic in the 1930s or the struggles in Imperial Russia in the 1917, deploring violence and calling for reconciliation simply makes the United States appear naïve and totally disconnected from the ground truth of what is actually taking place. (Saudi Arabia and the UAE understand what is going on, which is why they are willing to pony up $12 billion in support of the new government. They are relieved that the Brotherhood’s imperial project, of which they were intended victims, has been thwarted for the time being.)
In this struggle for power, some people will win; others will lose, but it is important enough that both sides are willing both to take and to lose lives to reach their objectives. Tut-tutting on the sidelines makes the United States appear ridiculous. Instead of just deploring violence, we should be appraising the character of the moral principles animating the two sides in this conflict and supporting the side that more closely comports with our own. And yes, that may require the choice of a lesser evil.
Unfortunately, the German military did not move against Adolph Hitler when he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Had they done so, Europe and the United States would have been spared a world of woe. Had that happened, would the American government have tried to intervene at the time, insisting on a restoration of Hitler, who had been democratically elected by a plurality of the German people? Would we have insisted that our democratic creed required us to do so? These questions answer themselves. We would have been grateful to the German military for doing so. We should likewise have some appreciation for what the Egyptian military has done to save its country and, by the way, preserve U.S. strategic interests in that area of the Middle East.
But what about the transition to democracy? Maybe the new government will be able to make one, but most likely, at least for the foreseeable future, it may not be able to. That will depend on the underlying conditions of which Bernard Lewis and Al-Hajj Warraq spoke. In any case, as Jean Kirkpatrick taught us long ago, an authoritarian regime is always preferable to a totalitarian one.
Robert Reilly is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He has taught at the National Defense University and has written for The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Claremont Review of Books, and The Washington Post. He has served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President (1983-85) and was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (2002-06). He is a former Director of the Voice of America and is a member of the board of the Middle East Media Research Institute. Mr. Reilly is the author of Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (2002). His most recent book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, was published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2010.