With Mohamed Morsi out and Egypt’s future unclear, Erick Stakelbeck, author of the new book The Brotherhood: America’s Next Great Enemy, talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about what the “Arab Spring” turned into and where Egypt may go from here, with a warning for the United States.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is there anything about what’s going on in Egypt right now that surprises you?
ERICK STAKELBECK: I’m a bit surprised that it took the Egyptian military a full year to finally step in and pull the plug on Morsi’s disastrous, aggressively Islamist tenure. Beginning in August 2012, when Morsi suddenly and boldly sacked Egypt’s longtime defense minister and other top generals, and continuing through that November, when Morsi seized dictatorial powers and then rammed through a nakedly sharia-driven constitution, it was obvious that he and the Brotherhood (aided by a freshly minted, Islamist-dominated parliament) were going “all in” on their dream to transform Egypt into a draconian Islamic state. In the process, they dropped their longtime strategy of stealthy gradualism and made their nefarious intentions for Egypt abundantly clear to the world.
All the while, the Egyptian military brass largely stayed silent, even as Morsi attempted to stack its ranks — and those of Egypt’s military academy — with Islamists. Why the military waited so long to turn back the MB tide is unclear. As NRO’s Andrew McCarthy has pointed out, top general Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who was handpicked by Morsi, may himself have Islamist tendencies. But Morsi’s ham-handed, polarizing, and tactless methods of going about the Islamist project in Egypt had to be red flags for al-Sisi and other possible sympathizers in the military (as was the looming possibility of famine and starvation among segments of the Egyptian populace). The final tipping point for the military was clearly the demonstrations — the largest in human history — against Morsi and the Brothers during the first week of July.
And that brings us to the greatest surprise of all: that the Muslim Brotherhood, long the world’s most politically astute, patient, and disciplined Islamist movement, overplayed its hand so badly in Egypt and revealed its true intent so early. At the end of the day, instituting sharia was more important to Morsi and his fellow Brothers than feeding the Egyptian people or making even the slightest attempt at jumpstarting the Egyptian economy. That in itself is not surprising. This is who the Brothers are, after all: committed ideological fanatics. What is surprising is that they made it so obvious, so soon.
LOPEZ: What is going on in Egypt now? What do Egyptians want?
STAKELBECK: I’m not even sure if Egyptians know what is going on in Egypt. Think about it. In the past two and a half years alone, we have seen the most populous and influential Arab country — the recipient of billions in U.S. aid — rocked by two massive revolutions. Simply put, Egypt, circa July 2013, is a positively schizophrenic society and practically ungovernable. What do Egyptians want? In February 2011, as Mubarak was being overthrown, we were told by a giddy mainstream media and the Obama administration that Egyptians were sick of tyranny and hungry for democracy and freedom. Then, when given the chance, the Egyptian people turned around and elected an overwhelmingly Islamist parliament and a Muslim Brotherhood president and voted “yes” on a new constitution that sought to enshrine sharia law. Then, after just one year of an Islamist project that a majority of Egyptians voted for, three million people flooded Tahrir Square and precipitated a military coup against those same Islamists. What comes next is anyone’s guess. But I have a nasty hunch that it won’t be Jeffersonian democracy.
LOPEZ: Is the U.S. to blame for any of this?
STAKELBECK: In enthusiastically supporting the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration made one of the greatest blunders in American foreign-policy history. Mubarak was a tyrant in his own right and no saint, but he kept the peace treaty with Israel (albeit a cold peace), maintained stable relations with the U.S., and kept al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Brotherhood, and other revolutionary, anti-American Islamists in check. In Egypt, sad to say, that’s about as good as it gets. Even casual observers knew that once Mubarak was gone, the Brotherhood — the most organized, powerful, and ruthless political movement in Egypt — would be the prime beneficiaries.
The Obama administration knew this as well, and its officials were absolutely giddy about it. The Muslim Brotherhood was no longer the inherently anti-American, anti-Semitic organization that had collaborated with the Nazis and spawned al-Qaeda and Hamas. Suddenly, they were recast by the Obama White House as Islamist “moderates”: a devout but pragmatic bunch that could be used as a counterweight to the really bad guys from al-Qaeda. This was sheer madness from the beginning and remains so today. Yet the Obama administration doggedly continues to support and empower the Brotherhood both overseas and at home — a phenomenon I cover in detail in the book.
In Egypt, the U.S. government backed Morsi at every turn, even after he seized virtual dictator’s powers in November 2012, spewed anti-Semitic venom, tacitly approved Islamist attacks on Egyptian Christians, and saw millions of his own people turn against him. It’s safe to say that without the support — financial and otherwise — of the Obama administration, Morsi would not have lasted eight or even six months in office. The predictable outcome of the administration’s Bro-mance was on full display during the anti-Morsi rallies in Tahrir Square earlier this month, as countless signs and chants were directed against Obama and his ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, who unfortunately provided cover for Morsi in his final months.
LOPEZ: Are you perhaps being unrealistic about the Muslim Brotherhood’s power and reach?
STAKELBECK: No. Remember, while my new book is subtitled “America’s Next Great Enemy,” that label applies not solely to the Brotherhood in Egypt but to the global MB movement. That includes not only the ones in Egypt, but MB branches around the world (as I point out in the book, the group is present in some 80 countries), and also includes MB offshoots like al-Qaeda and Hamas and homegrown jihadists in the U.S and Europe who are brainwashed in Brotherhood-controlled mosques and weaned on the group’s violent ideology. Essentially, America’s next great enemy is the global Sunni Islamist movement (rivaled, and, at times, complemented, by Iran’s Shiite-jihadist axis), with the Muslim Brotherhood as its main fount and ideological bedrock.
And by the way, don’t count the Brotherhood out in Egypt. They’ve been down this road before there, with their leaders imprisoned and executed and the movement banned for decades by the Egyptian government. Yet by 2012, they were able to regroup to the point that Morsi won the Egyptian presidency just one year after being released from prison. Now that power has been wrenched away from them so suddenly and violently, the Brotherhood and its Salafist allies will not just go silently into the night. Things will get uglier in Egypt, and likely very soon.