The New/Old Egypt


The blame game has already begun over how Egypt elected as president this week a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood known to be a strict Muslim ideologue seeking closer ties with Iran.

Who lost Egypt? That’s the question Bret Stephens asked in his Wall Street Journal column Monday, calling out the Obama and Bush administrations for not doing enough to advocate for a more open Egyptian society, as well as the Egyptians themselves. “By the time they come to regret their choice,” he writes, “they won’t be in a position to change it.”

Stephens also faults “liberal abdicators,” those who view free elections as legitimate even if they result in totalitarian governments. (The Hamas election in Gaza in 2006 is a good example.)

Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security advisor in the Bush administration, writes that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should top the list, noting that his refusal to ever name a vice president and credible successor was a major factor in the disturbing results that has Israel and the U.S. deeply worried.

Dennis Ross, the longtime Mideast negotiator, believes that, given their choice of candidates, it is not at all surprising that the Egyptian people chose Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood insider, over Ahmed Shafik, the former Egyptian prime minister closely aligned with Mubarak.

Speaking at the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, Ross said Mubarak stifled attempts at democratizing the system in Egypt for decades, jailing dissidents who advocated for freedom of speech and other basic human rights. The only alternative to the regime was the Brotherhood, which embodied social service and cared for the masses in ways that the government did not. So it was only natural, he said, that people would favor the Brotherhood candidate over the man who was the face of the hated Mubarak regime.

Ross acknowledged that Morsi and his colleagues may well try “to build a narrative of blame,” casting the U.S. and Israel as responsible for Egypt’s troubles. But he also suggested that the new government, facing a populace that now demands accountability, would focus primarily on improving the economy. Egypt will need outside help, and in return for economic aid, Ross said the U.S. should insist that Cairo honor its peace treaty with Israel and respect the rights of women and minorities and allow for political competition.

In the meantime, while the struggle between Morsi and the military leadership is just beginning, it is unclear whether he will try to make good on his initial presidential pledge of inclusiveness and moderation, or on the messages he conveyed in the past, strongly criticizing Israel and championing a strict interpretation of Islamic ideology.

Wisely, Israel has kept a low profile for now, emphasizing its desire for peace. But change is coming to Egypt, and it is sure to be a rocky path, either on the road to a military regime, an Iran-like government ruled by Islamic law or, we hope, to wider democracy.