Monday, November 26, 2012

US chooses stability over democracy in Egypt

In backing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the US has chosen stability over democracy: but it will get neither

By James Brandon

On Thursday, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi passed an extraordinary presidential decree. This unilaterally fired the country’s prosecutor-general, banned the judiciary from dissolving the country’s constituent assembly and, conveniently, also declared all the president’s decisions to be irrevocable and immune from any form of judicial challenge or overturn.

Morsi said this would allow him to achieve ‘political and economic stability’ in Egypt and to ‘defend the revolution’: an ominous phrase beloved by every revolutionary-turned-despot from Robespierre to Lenin and Mao.

This momentous step – which one Egyptian legal expert described as ’absolute fascism’ - was almost certainly given the nod by the Obama administration, either implicitly or explicitly. Only a few hours before his announcement, Hillary Clinton had told a press conference in Cairo that:

“Egypt's new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.”

After Morsi’s announcement, the US State Department merely observed that Morsi’s moves “raise concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community”, hardly a resounding US denunciation.

The ‘stability and peace’ trade-off that was reached between Clinton and Morsi in Cairo is clear; in return for Morsi persuading Hamas to agree to a ceasefire with Israel, the US would allow him to seize new ‘temporary’ political powers under the guise of ensuring ‘stability’, both in Egypt and in the region.

This move – the latest instance of the Obama Whitehouse dressing up naivety for hard-nosed realism -- is short-sighted for two main reasons:

Firstly, it grants the Muslim Brotherhood the power to act with minimal checks and balances from Egypt’s judiciary. Now that Egypt’s non-ideological military has realised that it can prosper under an Islamist regime, the judiciary was the last branch of government still acting as a significant brake on Brotherhood ambitions.

For all its faults, this institution is now likely to be purged and silenced, with knock-on effects for Egyptian politics: opposition protesters will face tougher sentences, Brotherhood members – already widely accused of attacks on rival demonstrators and of using sexual assault to intimidate liberal female oppositionists - will be able to act with greater impunity.

Ongoing, politically motivated prosecutions of opposition leaders, on charges from blasphemy to corruption, will also likely increase. Weakening Egypt’s judges will also enable the Brotherhood to move against other sources of opposition formerly protected by the judiciary.

On Friday, Gehad al-Haddad, a senior Brotherhood adviser, tweeted ominously that after the Brotherhood had dealt with the judiciary, ‘the police needs its own cleansing project, which this declaration enabled. Let’s hope it’s swift’.

Secondly, Hillary Clinton’s ‘peace and stability’ trade-off has only granted Israel a short-term reprieve and has in the longer-term stacked the odds against the survival of the Jewish homeland.

Following Clinton’s visit, Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood’s real leader who was prevented from standing for the presidency on a technicality, publicly reiterated the group’s view on Israel that “jihad was obligatory” on Muslims, his sole proviso being that an armed attack on Israel by Arab states should only be “the last stage”, once the Muslim world had achieved “unity”-- incidentally a word used by Morsi to justify his power-grab.

As will become clear, in the longer-term Clinton’s deal with Morsi has weakened Israel by linking its security to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ambitions: if the US does not give a free hand to the Brotherhood in Egypt, the Egyptians will cease to rein in Hamas.

Clearly, this new dynamic works actively against Israel; the more Hamas threatens Israel, the more the US will have to concede to the Brotherhood in Cairo; a formula that only motivates the Brotherhood to allow Hamas’ military capabilities strengthen further, all while the Brotherhood uses its control of Egypt to advance towards its planned ‘last stage’, namely the eventual liquidation of Israel.

It is of course possible that Morsi will keep his promise to relinquish his powers once a constitution is in place. However, Morsi and his followers believe their party acts on earth on behalf of God; how then can they reduce God’s earthly powers and remain devout?

It is also possible that Morsi’s unseemly lunge for the levers of power will galvanise the group’s much-hyped ‘liberal’ wing. Certainly it has unnerved overseas supporters. Osama Saeed, the Scottish Brotherhood activist now working for al-Jazeera, described Morsi’s defence of the move ‘as reminiscent of Gaddafi’.

Dali Mogahed, a long-time US-based defender of the Brotherhood, described the move as ‘a disaster’. It is also possible that effective domestic opposition to the Brotherhood will now finally coalesce: Mohamed ElBaradei’s powerful denunciation on Friday of Morsi as a ‘pharaoh’, the Brotherhood’s preferred term for Mubarak, clearly struck a nerve.

Yet these developments may be too little, too late. With the Brotherhood seizing dictatorial powers and silencing opposition voices, while simultaneously re-writing the country’s constitution in order to hardwire Islamism into the country’s governmental DNA, all apparently with the tacit support of Obama’s White House, it may be too late to save Egypt from despotism.

James Brandon is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ISCR) at Kings College London and is the former Director of Research and Communications at the Quilliam Foundation, the counter-extremism thinktank. He is currently working as a political risk and security analyst.

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