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US Approach Towards the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood

Presented at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) Twelth World Summit on Counter-Terrorism, Herzliya, Israel 10-13 September 2012

Have there ever been examples of despots and autocrats being moderated by being incentivised to do so by the international community? Can you think of any? The tides of tyranny have never been reversed by financial incentives.

On the contrary this has merely emboldened them and hardened their insatiable desire to maximise power. The Obama administration is in the process of emboldening the Muslim Brotherhood by finalising a $1-billion bailout for the Muslim Brotherhood, almost a third of its total burden. The Obama administration is also working with the (IMF) to secure a $5-billion loan for the regime. On top of that, U.S. officials are in the process of creating multiple funds and programs worth almost $500 million to help U.S. and Egyptian businesses connected with the regime. This would be in addition to the regular “security” and “foreign aid” packages. The State Department is also preparing to lead a delegation of dozens of U.S. companies to encourage investment in Egypt. The Obama administration was offering almost $500 million in loans and guarantees to Egyptian businesses [i].

Note these measures are not being advanced with an independent secular civil society, but with the regime. As such, the Obama administration is repeating the mistaken approach of successive US administrations. That is conducting a top-down approach that empowered autocrats at the expense of investing in a secular liberal civil-society. The Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan is ‘Islam is the Answer.’ Thus the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme leader, Muhammed Badi in Sept 2010 exhorted in a sermon that Muslims ‘need to understand that the improvement and change that the Muslim nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death, just as the enemies pursue life.’ Well let’s see whether the Koran alone has the ability to raise the Muslim world out of social and economic stagnation. Turkey has already cheated by combining Mohammed with Adam Smith. So much for the Koran superseding everything including the state. However, the US is enabling Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to cheat and not make ideological compromises by offering it freebies.

On the contrary, the US has stoked the fires of despotism in Egypt that has entailed alleviating the Muslim Brotherhood of the responsibility of fostering good governance and a coherent economic plan. Martin Kramer has expressed, ‘The Brotherhood has a so-called “Renaissance” plan for the overhaul of the Egyptian economy. I won’t pretend to judge its feasibility. Could modernization of tax collection double or triple tax revenues? Can Egypt double the number of arriving tourists, even while contemplating limits on alcohol and bikinis? Can a renovation of the Suez Canal raise transit revenues from $6 billion a year to $100 billion? Can Egypt’s economy surpass the economies of Turkey and Malaysia within seven years? These are all claims made at various times by the economic thinkers of the Muslim Brotherhood, who trumpet Egypt’s supposed potential for self-sufficiency.’ [ii]  Plan B, Kramer outlines is a shakedown in what is termed as ‘Reparations’ from the West for its geo-strategic position. Martin Kramer was so right in his prescient assessment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s shakedown of the West which we already see in motion.

As leverage for this shakedown, Morsi has sought to develop ties with China and upgrade relations with Iran. To this end he has proposed setting up a committee of four nations including not only Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey but also Iran to try to end the fighting in Syria. Egypt has in the past refused to inspect an Iranian ship passing through the Suez Canal en route to Syria. Currently, the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to revive Egypt’s nuclear program. And in anticipation of Morsi’s visit to Iran, Iran was said to have offered to assist Egypt in developing a nuclear program.

Despite the numerous overtures of the Obama administration to Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is not moderating. On the contrary, the democratic deficit is eroding at an ever increasing pace with US subsidies. Morsi seems to be emulating the tactics of his Turkish AKP counterpart by dismissing several top army officers along with an intelligence chief claiming they were “counter-revolutionaries” engaged in “subversion” against the Muslim Brotherhood’s new regime.

While Mohamed El-Baradei, declared that Morsi had now assumed “imperial powers.” The Obama administration’s silence has been deafening. The Muslim Brotherhood’s counter-revolution rationale has been used to justify its appointment of appointed 50 new editors to take over government-run newspapers.

While Morsi himself already possesses legislative and executive powers after Parliament was dissolved this has not been enough for the Muslim Brotherhood’s craving for raw power. The Associated Press cited “insiders,” that Morsi planned to replace many of Egypt’s 27 provincial governors with members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is planning to purge the judiciary branch of judges known to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood.

What can we say about this? DeMubarakization cannot be said to be synonymous with democratisation.
The inception of this incremental assumption of power by stealth can be identified by the Muslim Brotherhood’s deliberate strategy of deception. They falsely claimed they wouldn’t run candidates for every seat and had no intention to dominate the parliament—and then they did. The Muslim Brotherhood further said they wouldn’t run a presidential candidate of their own—and then they reneged on this promise too.

There are 6 reasons that I can identify for the US’s oversight of the increasing tyranny being wielded by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

[1] US Exceptionalism

All Previous US Presidents subscribed to US exceptionalism characterised by JFK and Reagan respectively quoting John Winthrop’s notion of the US being a ‘City or a Shining City on a Hill’.

All subscribed to providence driving the US’s unique mission in the world.

Whether it be in the form Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt’s internationalism, with both subscribing to interventionism and the former’s belief that the US should serve humanity and whose use of force be used only “for the elevation of the spirit of the human race.”

President Bush Snr’s New World Order which the US would drive and its primacy not compromised,

Clinton’s spearheading of free-markets and globalisation,

or President Bush’s export of democracy.

It is unprecedented to have a President subscribe to a Post American Century as being a normative value and with relativistic candour deny this and draw equivalence between the US and other nations. In this manner President Obama declared, ‘I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.’

When there are no objective values, is it possible to have a coherent foreign policy strategy or aspirations?

Via this prism we can understand that President Obama has not bothered to attend half of his intelligence briefings while his predecessor was most scrupulous at attending all of his. With post-modernism can you care enough to know what is going on abroad especially if the concept of knowledge is questionable. Is this President engaged?

[2] Domestic Approach to Counter-Terrorism Spilling Over to Foreign Policy

It is not simply autocratic regimes that abuse their domestic infrastructure and are likely to have belligerent foreign policies. There is a spill-over effect of a very different kind from domestic to foreign policy with Western democratic states. It was Farah Pandith, the State Department’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities that initially advanced promoting a counter-narrative to Islamism and anti-Americanism. This would be conducted via civil-societal engagement with Islamic communities in the US and Europe. This was echoed in President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech where he articulated his vision for engagement with the Islamic world that aspired to achieve a counter-narrative to Islamism and anti-Americanism. This cannot be decoupled from the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism strategy which was greatly informed by Pandith conflating the promotion of national identity and integration on one hand with counter-terrorism and radicalisation on the other. In Britain this approach proved to be problematic as attempts to advance integration often overlooked radicalisation and even led to the government funding Islamist groups and alienating moderate ones in the process. In 2011, the review of the 2007 Prevent strategy identified this approach of having failed in Britain.

This was not a purely domestic approach, but one that has been applied to foreign policy too. Thus we can appreciate the Obama administration’s ignoring the Muslim Brotherhood’s abuses, terrorist pronouncement and erosion of democracy.

[3] An Incoherent Administration that Flipflops Cannot be Trusted

After decades of US support to Mubarak and initially backing him in his stand-off with Tahrir Square, the Obama administration shifted saying that the Egyptian government had to immediately address the legitimate grievances of the people or it would review its assistance posture. This betrayal did not go unnoticed by Saudi Arabia or Israel who’s Yediot Achronot carried a front cover with the title ‘Will the US abandon Israel?’ The series of flipflops is underscored by the Obama administration’s strategy of Engaging Foes and Isolating Friends. President Obama’s initial policy of engaging Iran immediately roiled fear amongst the US’s allied Gulf states who underpin its security architecture in the Persian Gulf. This caused them to recalibrate their foreign policy and tilt evermore towards China and Russia.

Parenthetically, let’s just check out the Obama administration’s flipflopping on Iran. While Obama has explicitly claimed a preventive strategy on Iran, his top officials have continually shifting positions.” Hillary Clinton stated in Thailand on July 22, 2009 that, “If the US extends a defensive umbrella over the region, it’s unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won’t be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon.” She shifted from her original position of deterrence to prevention, declaring that US policy “is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons capability.” And Leon Panetta’s speculation that an Israeli attack could take place in “April, May or June” this year appeared more designed to deter Tel Aviv from an air strike than Tehran from a nuclear arsenal. This is all the while Panetta claimed, on December 19 last year, that “Iran could build a bomb within a year should it decide to do so.”

The ambiguity is deepened when taking into consideration the fact that Panetta has stated on several occasions that Iranian development of a nuclear weapon would cross a US red-line, while failing to express what the red lines are, and spur Washington to “take whatever steps [were] necessary to stop it.” Yet both he and his senior military advisor, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey, have also emphasised in public that a military attack would be destabilising and have undesirable, unintended consequences. While Dempsey attempted to backtrack from this statement he has once again expressed that the US would have no part in any strikes on Iran. In contrast, Air Force commander General Norman Schwartz has stated that the US was preparing for various military scenarios involving Iran.

[4] Following Rather than Formulating Events

It’s not only simply in Mubarak’s case that the US simply obediently followed events rather than attempting to strategically formulate it. Not only did the US not predict Khoumeini’s rise to power, Carter abandoned the Shah and sought to accommodate Khoumeini once he had come to power through stealthy and brutal means. Vis a vis the Arab Spring, Nabil Shaath echoed this view saying, ‘What was the role of the US in the “Arab Spring”? In the three weeks of the Egyptian [revolution], Obama changed his position six times. He is constantly reacting to events rather than generating them. What role does the US play in Lebanon and Syria? What the role does the US play in Iran? The US has no real presence.’

[5] Differentiated Threats

It is now a cliché to speak of those good old days of the Cold War where bipolarity and mutually assured destruction was so manageable. I am being slightly ironic in saying that, but if you look at past national security strategies during the Cold War you see that it was clearly identified that Moscow was the source and numerous other conflicts were satellites. It was easier to conceptualise foreign policy and thus the national security council had 20-30 staffers at the height of the Cold War. This leads me to speak of another cliché, that of the Middle East’s ‘Shifting Sands’ which lends itself to differentiated threats. Today you see state failure, the rise of Islamism, Sunni versus Shiite, Sunni and Shiite able to transcend their differences and have an alliance (check out the 9/11 Commission report on this) the rise of nationalism, changing alliances, and states hedging their bets or changing their minds on whose orbit they want to be in. Like that Turkey has gone from a no enemies foreign policy to a no friends foreign policy! There are endless debates whether Islamism has a domestic focus or foreign designs, and whether the Muslim Brotherhood is seamless organisation or state-based with separate entities.

As opposed to the Cold War, it is harder to identify a central node (or as King Hussein says a ‘central pressure point’) that will dissipate all regional tensions.

Whether it be the road to Jerusalem running through Baghdad as President Bush Jr saw it,

or the road to Baghdad running through Jerusalem as Tony Blair saw it,

or the road to Tehran running through Jerusalem as President Obama sees it,

or the road to Jerusalem running through Tehran as Netanyahu perceives it.

So may roads a GPS is clearly needed. But we can see why linkage is such a seductively false approach.

But amidst all the chaos, in a time of fiscal crisis and diminishing resources, the US has underwhelmingly rebranded its statecraft as ‘Smart-Power.’ While the US is incapable of winning hearts and minds, and is unable to conceptualise the differentiated and rapidly shifting threats, the National Security Council has burgeoned to staffing around 300 people! 

[6] Projection Values Onto The Other Coupled With Denial

Realism’s measurement of power dynamics between states is the heir of the Enlightenment’s cost-benefit analysis approach that was ascendant during the Cold War. You can understand why Huntington’s Clash of Civilisation’s thesis that shifted away from power dynamics towards cultural units created such a controversy. Well there’s a part of the globe that hasn’t experienced the Westphalian privatisation of region, the reformation of religion or the materialist enlightenment all of which has happened in the West, and denying this leads to denying the fanatical intent on the part of Islamists or worse still, excusing them and projecting one’s values onto the other. This has happened numerous times in the past claiming that:

Islamists merely seek to reform their societies along Islamic ideals,

they are diverse,


decoupling Islamism from terrorism,

distinguishing fundamentalism from extremism

separating non-violent and violent extremists [iii]

or Political and terrorist wings.

The materialist Western policy-tool kit does not know how to effectively counter radical ideological threats in the domestic or foreign sphere, so it seeks to neatly repackage them as mere territorial, social or economic disgruntlements. Postmodernism also helps in denying or making apologetics for Egypt’s growing radicalism.
This leads to a dangerous scenario where there is a severe misalignment between strategy and the reality its superimposed upon.

Apples and oranges,

Tangibles and intangibles,

Materialist and ideological

Liberalism and democracy

West and East.

Thus when a terrorist sub-state actor becomes the state, attempts on the part of the West to deny strategic failure increase and rebranding the terrorists abound. The EU refuses to designate Hezbollah a terrorist entity. We’ve heard the European voices that attempted to distinguish between both Hezbollah and Hamas’s terrorist and political wings. The Obama administration toyed with this idea over a year ago vis a vis Hezbollah and is doing so with the Taliban and Haqanni network in Afghanistan and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

This leads to something to something more insidious. Give it time, and in light of the inability to contend with differentiated threats reinforced with ideological ambiguity you will see future US administrations create a hierarchy of terrorist groups predicated upon spurious distinctions between soft and hard forms of Islamism and Jihad.

This hierarchy will be along the lines of whether ‘groups’ have domestic ‘values’ even if it be repression claiming that you can engage with them in contrast to ‘terrorists’ with foreign intentions that must be confronted. The US will seek to employ a strategy of having the ‘soft Islamist’ groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood used as a Bulwark to counter hard Islamist groups such as ‘al Qaeda’ in turn diminishing the US’s influence in the region in the short-term even further while setting the US up for the next generation’s ‘blowback’. The relationship with Israel will be downgraded in the process.

[iii] For a wonderful overview of this read, 

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).