Encouraging Signs from Egypt

The political victories of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime have worried many in the United States, Israel and Europe. After decades of overlooking the repressive policies of a reliable ally who could keep Islamic extremists in check, many outsiders have felt uneasy about taking what they see as risks to their interests for the sake of democracy in a Muslim country. The fact that the Brotherhood has spawned violent anti-Israeli and anti-Western offshoots like Hamas is only one reason for such worries (although it is important to remember that the Egyptian Brotherhood has renounced violence, and is unlikely to reverse course anytime soon). A related fear is that President Mohamed Morsi may not take the side of the U.S. in all international disputes.


But it is perfectly natural for Egypt, like any other nation-state whose government is held accountable by its people, to pursue its own best interests, even if those interests sometimes clash with those of the West. Not even longtime allies agree with each other on every matter (France and Germany, for example, refused to join the U.S.-led coalition in the Iraq War). Furthermore, after many years of rule by a dictator whose people often saw him as subservient to the U.S., it is refreshing, in the opinion of many Egyptians, for the government in Cairo to break with the West when it feels it is wise to do so.


In the long term, a more independent Egypt may even be more likely to side with the West on matters like democracy promotion in the Middle East. Whereas Mubarak was often uncomfortable with pro-democracy movements in the region, for fear that they would weaken his own regime, Morsi has openly supported the Syrians rebelling against their own dictator, Bashar al-Assad. A struggling democrat is more likely to get support from another genuine democrat than from an unpopular autocrat.


Some observers feared that, merely by attending the Nonaligned Movement’s recent summit in Tehran, Morsi would lend legitimacy to Iran’s brutal Islamist government, a key ally of Assad. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, for example, worried that Morsi would be “helping to sanitize” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime while undermining Iran’s pro-democracy Green Movement. But in fact, Morsi deeply upset his hosts by expressing “undiminished support for the struggle for freedom and justice in Syria.” If these remarks have any effect on the Green Movement, they will likely serve to bolster the movement’s resolve.


Fortunately, President Obama appears to recognize the importance of continued positive U.S.-Egyptian relations. His administration’s effort to negotiate a billion-dollar debt relief package for Egypt is evidence of that. If those who seek genuine stability and democracy in the Middle East engage with an Egypt led by the Brotherhood, even as Cairo also seeks an independent foreign policy, the Arab Spring will be on a much sounder footing than if the West treated the Brotherhood with scorn.


Submitted by Michael D. Purzycki


The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of Rutgers University or the Division of Global Affairs.

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