Washington is playing with Brotherhood fire

Wishful thinking on the part of the Obama administration is creating some dangerous illusions about the "new" Egypt.

US President Barack Obama smile 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
US President Barack Obama smile 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Several days ago The New York Times revealed a historic shift in US foreign policy, saying “the Obama administration has begun to reverse decades of mistrust and hostility as it seeks to forge closer ties” with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, once viewed as irreconcilably opposed to US interests.
The move was attributed to the new political reality, the results of three rounds of elections in Egypt which project the Muslim Brotherhood as the winners of the majority in the new parliament. It was also made possible by the Brotherhood’s “moderate messages,” including the promise to build a “modern democracy that will respect individual freedoms, free markets and international commitments, including Egypt’s treaty with Israel.”
But what’s really new about this? For decades the US has had deep strategic, military and economic relations with Saudi Arabia, a theocratic regime which has a much more obscurantist Islamist policy than the one proposed by the Brotherhood in its official program (not the one presented to the Egyptian and foreign public in its platform before the elections).
The US also provided military support, albeit indirectly, to the mujihadeen fighting the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
What’s really new here is the obliviousness and naïve, wishful thinking evinced by the American policy makers and intellectuals proposing this “rapprochement” with the Islamist movements in the Arab world, which hijacked the uprisings of the young Arab modernist forces in Tunisia and Egypt and will probably do the same in Libya and Syria.
The mujihadeen of Afghanistan fell under the influence of Abdullah Azzam, the ideologue of the jihadist global movement and the mentor of Osama bin Laden. Azzam’s concept of “al-Qa’ida al-Sulbah,” or “the solid base” of the jihadi vanguard was the source of the al-Qaida organization’s name.
Abdullah Azzam visited the United States in the late 1980s, before the end of the war in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of the Soviet forces, and preached jihad against America.
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1995-96, Saudi Arabia gave it financial support and diplomatic recognition, despite the Taliban’s permission for bin Laden to train anti-American and anti-Saudi young jihadists on Afghani soil.
Surprisingly, al-Qaida never attacked Saudi interests before the American occupation of Iraq in spring 2003.
It is also surprising that 15 of the 19 hijackers who attacked the US on September 11, 2001 were Saudis.
The 9/11 Commission identified eight more al-Qaida operatives who had been personally chosen by bin Laden to participate in the hijackings, but who for a variety of reasons dropped out of the plot.
Saudis have been involved in every major terrorist attack against the United States, in Saudi Arabia itself and elsewhere: the Saudi National Guard bombing in November 1995, the Khobar Towers bombing in June 1996, the Nairobi embassy bombing in August 1998, the USS Cole bombing in October 2000, and, of course, September 11.
Moreover, Saudi nationals have played a leading role in financing the al-Qaida infrastructure and its terrorist attacks and have also funded the Sunni insurgency in Iraq against the American and coalition forces. Some 70 percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq were Saudis.
Apologists for the Bush administration’s foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia claimed that “despite all their shortcomings” Saudi Arabia was a willing partner in the fight against the mutual threat represented by al-Qaida.
WILL THE Muslim Brotherhood be a willing partner in the democratization of Egypt and the Arab world at large? The double-talk of its leaders does not bode well for the future. Their promises at the beginning of the uprising in Egypt to run only for 35% of the parliament seats look today like a farcical joke. Ibrahim Munir, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, has denied that the group has given any assurances to Washington about respecting the agreement with Israel.
Essam al-Erian, deputy head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, declared that the Brotherhood is “not in a position to give assurances.”
Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie, who met recently with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh during the latter’s visit to Cairo, declared that the “Brotherhood has always embraced issues of liberation, foremost the Palestinian issue,” and that Hamas has served as a role model to the Brotherhood. Haniyeh described Hamas as the “jihadi movement of the Brotherhood with a Palestinian face” and claimed his visit to the Brotherhood center would confuse and frighten “the Israeli entity.”
In Israel, too, some respected voices have proposed talking to Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the name of realpolitik. The new Israeli ambassador to Cairo has been instructed to look for contacts with the Brotherhood leaders.
In the past Israel has been accused of “inventing” Hamas and supporting its activities. In fact, as far back as the 1970s Israeli authorities permitted Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood factions in Gaza and the West Bank to act openly on the religious, social and economic level [so-called da’wa activities] as they did not engage at that time in terrorism like their secular comrades.
The Israeli political and military establishment did not take seriously the declarations of the then-Muslim Brotherhood leaders that they were preparing a new generation of young jihadi fighters for the liberation of Palestine for the purpose of creating an Islamic state.
Only in 1985 had it become clear that the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood was preparing for “armed struggle,” but the arrest of its leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin did not stop the militarization process which led to the metamorphosis of the movement in the Hamas terrorist organization at the opening of the first intifada in 1987.
Hamas, together with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad [another faction of the Muslim Brotherhood which became a proxy of the Tehran regime] was responsible for the waves of suicide bombings in the mid- 1990s, in the aftermath of the Oslo peace agreement. That sabotaged the sensitive relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, and during the second bloody intifada derailed the chances for a negotiated solution.
The Brotherhood victory in Egypt presents a serious dilemma indeed for US, European and Israeli leaders alike. They probably have no alternative but to engage with the new Islamist leaders who will control the leading Arab country and the less important ones.
The question is whether they will be able to challenge the Brotherhood’s Islamist radical religious worldview and autocratic tendencies as it attempts to impose them on the Arab peoples and lead the region to an obscurantist era, in sharp conflict with Western democratic and liberal values.
The writer is a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya