Foreign Affairs

The Egyptian Crisis: Lost Horizon (The Sequel)

Within the legitimate popular protests to oust the Iranian autocrat, an American administration analyzed the allegedly radical element as “… better organized [and] enlightened … than its detractors would lead us to believe [and could] produce something more closely approaching Westernized democratic processes than might be at first apparent.”  As historian Abbas Milani dryly noted, “a more misguided reading of what Khomeini stood for is hard to imagine.”

How did it happen?  Khomeini practiced what he preached—lie to the infidel.  Milani, a former political prisoner under the Shah of Iran, succinctly records the strategy:  “Khomeini hid his ultimate goal and true ideology and took on the guise of a democratic leader.  Not only did he dissimulate when responding to the U.S. questionnaire, but in his more than one hundred interviews in Paris, there was no mention of velayat-e faqih [the divine rule of clerics absent popular consent]. …  To add further credibility to this democratic pose, Khomeini allowed a few ambitious, Western-trained aides … to become the public face of his movement in Paris.  [They] helped consolidate the democratic façade.”

But while he dissembled, “unbeknownst to the world, Khomeini had already organized a few trusted clerics in Tehran—nearly all had been his students in earlier years—into a covert Revolutionary Committee.  Some members of this committee, particularly those from the Freedom Movement, were in close contact with American Embassy officials in Tehran.”  In fact, for several weeks prior to the shah’s exile, Khomeini “and his entourage in Paris and his allies in Tehran had been in touch with the American Embassy.”  Later, Khomeini and his entourage had even greater contact with the American Embassy for 444 days.  

But American diplomats and Iranians were not the only ones fooled by Khomeini.  Again, Milani tersely explains who else was brought into “this dangerous game of wishful self-delusion.  Prominent Western intellectuals … saw Khomeini as a breath of fresh air after a century of intellectual regurgitation of the Enlightenment’s ‘sterile’ ideas.  [It] … reflected the ‘progressive’ Western intellectual’s romantic weakness for any radical force that was anti-American or anti-Western.  In the absence of reasoned debate about Khomeini and his ideas, his Paris proclamations, all carefully crafted to fit the moment, became people’s only introduction to the man.  Exercising remarkable discipline in Paris, he held the pose of a liberal. …  [T]his political discipline was about to bear fruit.”

Ignoring the lessons of Iran and failing to back our ally the Mubarak government, the Obama administration has created chaos and a power vacuum—one that the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) is undoubtedly plotting to fill.

In refusing to support the Mubarak government and pressing both it and the responsible opposition to achieve constructive change from within existing institutional arrangements, the administration has left Mubarak no face-saving way to facilitate the peaceful transition of power and leave power, undermined the Mubarak government’s credibility to negotiate with the protestors, emboldened the opposition to intransigently refuse to engage the existing government prior to Mubarak’s departure (a de facto collapse of the government), frightened government supporters with the prospect of being purged in the chaos following Mubarak’s precipitous exit, and alarmed other nations that are or aspire to be America’s allies, which now wonder whether the U.S. has become a fickle and feckless partner.

Most ominously, not only do we see a steady stream of dangerously naïve stories that the Muslim Brotherhood is “moderate” and “nothing to fear,” (all of which are eerily reminiscent of those a generation ago lauding the “liberal” Khomeini), the Obama administration is reportedly in contact with the Ikhwan.

At this late juncture, American interests and policy remain clear:  a stable, peaceful transition to a more democratic, prosperous Egypt that honors its 1979 peace accord with Israel and remains an ally of the United States.  After watching the Obama administration twist and stumble since the Jan. 25 protest in Tahrir Square and the Jan. 28 march after Friday prayers, it is most unlikely our interests and those of the Egyptian people and our allies can be protected.  But, if they can be, all these conditions must be immediately expressed and concretely satisfied:

1.  The U.S. makes clear its recognition of the responsible opposition and its grievances against the Mubarak government.

2.  The U.S. makes clear its unequivocal support for a peaceful, responsible evolution of the Egyptian government within the existing  government and its institutions—including an outgoing Mubarak—that culminates in internationally monitored elections this September.

3.  The U.S. makes clear that the responsible opposition must be brought into the government to craft and implement legitimate political and economic reforms at both the national and, crucially, the community level—especially constitutional limitations on the power of the state over its sovereign citizens.

4.  The U.S. makes clear that the responsible opposition is defined as those individuals and organizations that presently do pledge and always have pledged to support a democratic, pluralistic Egypt, the rights of Coptic Christians, the peace accords with Israel, and the freedom of international navigation in the Suez Canal, and who have rejected terrorism as a means to an end.

5.  Unlike what occurred with Khomeini and his ilk in Iran, the U.S. makes clear that the Ikhwan is not a responsible opposition organization, and any individual who collaborates with or would bring the Ikhwan into the government is not a responsible candidate to lead Egypt.      

Will the Obama administration follow this prescription for Egypt and help prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from ruling Egypt as Khomeini’s spawn tyrannize Iran?  Perhaps, if they just remember the old adage:  “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”  If not, the Obama administration’s anile national security scorecard will read:  Ahmadinejad stayed.  Mubarak split.

So, though we may debate the threat of the Ikhwan and radical Islamists, can we at least agree they know how to count?

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