The United States has begun to do something it has never really done before: talk directly to the Muslim Brotherhood, the original modern Islamist movement, which is set to win a plurality or even majority of Egypt’s parliamentary seats and now prepares for a face-off with the country’s military rulers over who gets to run things. The U.S. decision reflects the Brotherhood’s promises to actually be democratic and to maintain the peace with Israel (which there are broader, structural reasons to believe it will do). The risk is that, well, the Brotherhood is Islamist, in a more hardcore way than, say, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP party; there is also the likelihood that more Islamist parties, which also enjoyed recent electoral successes, will force the Brotherhood to its right. Either way, I’ll hazard one prediction: the Obama administration’s decision to engage with the Brotherhood will—in a presidential election year that has seen issues in the Middle East like Iran and Israel take on outsize importance as ostensible reflections of President Obama’s values—become a GOP talking point.
It’s worth remembering, if and when the attacks on Obama for engaging with our enemies begins, that it was (Republican) neoconservatives, such as Elliott Abrams, who most fervently welcomed the Arab Spring, the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak, and the democracy that would presumably follow. And also that it was President Bush’s second-term Freedom Agenda that first made it U.S. policy to support democracy in the Middle East no matter the consequences—as when that administration pushed for Palestinian elections and watched as the Brotherhood’s cousin, Hamas, won. (The administration’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas wasn’t exactly a success—it led to Palestinian civil war and President Abbas’s lack of credibility. It wasn’t, however, definitively wrong or worse than negotiating would have been.)
The administration is casting its decision simply as the least bad option. “There doesn’t seem to me to be any other way to do it, except to engage with the party that won the election,” a senior administration official told the New York Times. Added Sen. John Kerry, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and a potential future Democratic secretary of state: “You’re certainly going to have to figure out how to deal with democratic governments that don’t espouse every policy or value you have.” (He compared it to President Reagan’s negotiating with the Soviets.) And how long until supporting secular nationalism in the Palestinian territories will seem similarly impractical as Hamas and other Islamist parties gain popularity?
What’s going to become increasingly clear is that even Sunni Islamists in the Levant and Egypt are, much like the Islamists of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and Iran and Pakistan, neither homogenous nor ideologically in sync. When Mubarak first went and people spoke of Turkey as a good-case scenario for Egypt, that meant some kind of Islamist government. You can wish for a world in which free and fair Egyptian elections put secular liberals in power, but right now that world doesn’t exist, and so if somebody were to argue that the administration is wrong to talk to the Brotherhood—offering them the blandishments of legitimacy in exchange for the moderation that responsibility and accountability inherently bring—then the appropriate response is: what would you do differently?
Overtures to Egypt’s Islamists Reverse Longtime U.S. Policy [NYT]
As Israelis and Palestinians Talk, the Rise of a Political Islam Alters the Equation [NYT]
Earlier: Perry’s Ascent Heralds Israel’s Rise as Issue