The political circus and spin after Muslim Brotherhood's Egypt presidential win
Spin, double talk, and attempts at partisan gain following the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi in the first free presidential election in Egyptian history.
Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.
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This morning Egypt's president elect told Iran's Fars News Agency – a government outlet with close to ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards – in an interview, "We must restore normal relations with Iran based on shared interests, and expand areas of political coordination and economic cooperation because this will create a balance of pressure in the region."
The story caught attention around the world, particularly among those inclined to see the Muslim Brotherhood's victory as alarming. Many took the interview as evidence that the Sunni Islamists of Egypt are about to make common cause with the Shiite theocracy of Iran. While that isn't likely, a desire for Egypt to be less beholden to the US on the part of Mr. Morsi would hardly be surprising. After all, the US financed a regime that spent decades pursuing Morsi and his allies for their political beliefs.
But Egypt also doesn't want to antagonize the US, the country's largest aid donor, at a time of financial crisis needlessly. Soon after the Fars interview appeared, an unnamed Morsi spokesmen took to regional media and said he hadn't granted any interview to Fars.
What's true? Who knows.
Iranian state media frequently serves a propaganda function. And it's also likely that Morsi is having his cake and eating it too.
That's been a bit of a pattern with him, adjusting his comments to suit his audience.
In his victory speech Sunday, he struck the right tone. "I am intent with your help to build a new Egypt ... a constitutional, democratic, and modern country," he said. "We Egyptians, Muslims, and Christians ... are advocates of civilization and construction."
Does he mean it? Many secular-leaning Egyptians and Coptic Christians will wait and see.
But what is certain is that Morsi and the movement he comes from are pragmatic and cautious. Morsi went out of his way to single out the military for praise in his remarks, even though in the days leading up to the announcement of his victory he'd bitterly complained about the extra-constitutional constraints the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had placed on the power of the presidency (the military basically removed any possibility of civilian oversight of their affairs and gave itself a major role in foreign policy and writing the next constitution).
He threatened not to take the oath of office in front of the Constitutional Court because that would amount to acknowledging SCAF's decrees. But today, he relented. The threat had been a negotiating position with the military. Did he get something in exchange? Again, who knows.
Donald Trump weighs in on Egypt
Games aren't just being played in Egypt.
Fox News has been on a bit of tear in seeking to make Morsi out to be a major threat to world peace. Yesterday, their website carried a video that purported to be Morsi delivering a fiery anti-Israeli speech, but was in fact delivered by another man. The misleading video remains uncorrected today on the Fox website.
Then this morning the gang on Fox and Friends brought on reality television star Donald Trump to explain the implications of Morsi's election (he apparently sidelines as an Egypt expert) and how it was all President Obama's fault to viewers this morning.
"Obama's foreign policy has been a disaster. Now the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over Egypt which is about as bad as it can get and we give billions and billions of dollars to Egypt," said Trump. "We could have helped Mubarak stay, he was a friend of ours, and he was a friend of Israel. And we dropped him like a red hot potato ... he was dropped so quickly that it was incredible."
He emphasized his point on Twitter later. "The Islamists have won," Trump wrote. "Just as I predicted, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over Egypt. Barack Obama never should have abandoned Mubarek (sic)."
Mr. Trump is so fundamentally wrong on this matter that it's hard to know where to begin pointing it out.
The Obama administration actually dragged its feet on urging Mubarak to step down, worried precisely about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power and the loss of a military-backed dictatorship that had been a fairly reliable client of the US for decades.
Unprecedented protests against Mubarak swelled over Cairo on Jan. 25, 2011. To longtime Egypt watchers, the sheer size of the crowd and the exuberance with which average Egyptians had thrown off the shroud of fear Mubarak had kept around them, it was immediately clear that something had irrevocably shifted.
In late 2010, Mubarak had carried out the most rigged election in Egyptian history (all Egyptian elections under his regime were rigged, but some more gently than others) and he was maneuvering to have his son become his successor. The Egyptian people had had enough.
But the Obama administration, cautious as ever, was slow to throw its weight behind the forces of democracy and change. Here's Hillary Clinton on Jan. 25: "Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."
On Jan. 27, Vice President Joe Biden was sent out to praise Mubarak as a friend of the US, insist he should remain in charge, and dismiss suggestions he was a dictator. Within days, security forces and plain-clothes thugs loyal to the regime were out on the streets, beating and sexually assaulting democracy activists and imprisoning some of their leaders.
On Feb. 5, Obama's special adviser on Egypt, Frank Wisner, was saying it was "critical" that Mubarak remain in power to manage a transitional period. It was only after this point, as Egypt veered towards violence and it was clear to most observers that Mubarak had lost help of securing his ongoing political role, that the US government's rhetoric shifted in a far more negative direction. Mubarak finally stepped down on Feb. 11.
Quite simply, the Obama administration's behavior was the precise opposite of how Trump described it.
The Obama lost Egypt meme
He's not the only one. Later in the day, John Bolton who was one of the leading proponents in the Bush administration for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which ended with a Shiite Islamist government friendly to Iran replacing a secular Sunni one that had been hostile to the Islamic Republic, came on Fox to continue pushing the "Obama lost Egypt" meme. As the presidential race heats up, this line of attack will probably be a frequent one.
But it's, again, outrageously at odds with reality.
The US government in fact had little influence over unfolding events in Egypt in 2011, or in the past few weeks. Egypt's military has managed Egypt's transition in the past year-and-a-half and has placed itself in what appears to be a senior position over Morsi, who comes from the military's old enemy the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yes, the US has continued to fund the Egyptian military to the tune of $1.3 billion a year during the transition, but that's not something that helped Morsi. Instead, he won the presidency because the Egyptian people preferred him to his opponent Ahmed Shafiq, a retired officer and long-time aide to Mubarak who would have carried on the military dominance of Egypt that stretches back to 1952.
Would the US and Obama have preferred if the Egyptian's had chosen Shafiq? Almost certainly.
Was there something he could have done about it? No. The US may send money to Egypt, but that buys far less leverage in internal politics than many in the US imagine.
That money has helped secure the peace with Israel for 30 years, and it likely to continue to do so. Morsi obliquely referred to the peace arrangement with Israel in his victory speech Sunday ("We will maintain international charters and conventions and the agreements and commitments Egypt has signed.") and is also beholden to a military establishment that wants no change.
Could he seek to scuttle the agreement with Israel some day, or try to alter its terms? In his heart of hearts, he probably would like to. And someday the Brotherhood's position in Egypt may be much stronger than it is now. But the group's popularity is a fact of life.
And the result of acting against a popular democratic transition in Egypt is never mentioned by the people who imply that Obama or his aides somehow failed to control that foreign country sufficiently. Would they have liked the US to back a violent military coup, and perhaps a violent purge of Islamist activists? Perhaps a military intervention? They never seem to say.
Egypt, for all its problems, has embarked on a brand new journey. Morsi will be seeking to maximize his power inside Egypt, and will be hemmed in by both secular Egyptian parties and a military that are eager to find advantage for themselves. Little will be certain during what promises to be a long transition except this: Spin will be imparted on unfolding Egyptian events, in service of all kinds of agendas.