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.
LOPEZ: Would the world really be better off with Mubarak in power still?
STAKELBECK: Judging by how the last two and a half years have unfolded, I don’t think that there is any doubt. Egypt’s relationship with America would be stable, its peace treaty with Israel would be relatively solid, and the Brotherhood and other revolutionary Islamists and terrorists would be kept largely in check. Mubarak’s Egypt also provided a Sunni bulwark against Iran’s expansionist ambitions. Unless Egypt magically turns around over the next few months, even the most starry-eyed advocate for Middle East “democracy” may begin to pine for Mubarak’s return.
LOPEZ: Could your book be, in part, a Coptic plea to the world?
STAKELBECK: In many ways, yes. As the Obama administration was tripping over itself to embrace the Brotherhood in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority was frantically sounding the alarm to anyone who would listen about the threat posed by the MB. Sadly, their warnings were largely ignored. The Copts had been harassed and even killed by the Brotherhood and its acolytes for decades and knew the true, totalitarian face of the movement all too well. Things were already bad for the Copts under Mubarak and became practically intolerable under Morsi. Now the Copts are being scapegoated by Egypt’s Islamists for Morsi’s ouster and will be targeted even more fiercely in the weeks and months to come. In fact, the wholesale persecution of Christians across the Middle East by Islamists is one of the hallmarks of the so-called Arab Spring and no one is suffering more because of it than Egypt’s Copts.
LOPEZ: What does the Boston marathon have to do with anything going on in Egypt right now?
STAKELBECK: One of the first things I asked when it was revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers had indeed carried out the Boston bombings was this: Where did they go to mosque? We soon learned that the brothers attended the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge, just a few blocks from their home. This has significance because both the Cambridge mosque and its sister mosque in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood are controlled by a group called the Muslim American Society (MAS). Federal prosecutors have identified MAS as “the overt arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in America.” So you do see the connection. What did they learn there? I think that is a fair question, given that Muslim Brotherhood ideology has spawned terror and mayhem for close to a century. As I document in the book, Brotherhood-linked organizations control a disturbing number of American mosques, and official MB strategy documents (which our own government has in its possession, by the way) call mosques, or Islamic centers, the “axis” of the MB movement, where “battalions are supplied.” Most Americans are probably unaware that the number of mosques in the United States has nearly doubled since the year 2000 alone. That is astounding. And I don’t believe it is by coincidence.
LOPEZ: Could there ever be conditions for an actual Arab Spring?
STAKELBECK: If we’re talking about the sweeping emergence of vibrant Middle Eastern democracies that reject strongman-type rulers and ensure rights for everyone, then, no (unless you count Israel, of course, which is a model democracy and beacon of light in a dark and chaotic corner of the world). For one, the history of the region from the dawn of time screams otherwise. Second, despite the jettisoning of Morsi in Egypt, moderate, cultural Muslims are currently on the run and fervent Islamists are on the rise across the Middle East and North Africa. For a true Arab Spring to have even a remote chance of happening, Islamism and jihadism would need to be completely repudiated by Muslim peoples. That has never happened in the 1,400 years of Islam’s existence, even with the unspeakable atrocities committed by al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Brotherhood, the Iranian regime, and their ilk being splashed across TV sets throughout the Muslim world every day. At the end of the day, though, it all boils down to one undeniable fact: Judeo-Christian, Western civilization is one of a kind in its promotion of tolerance, freedom, and human rights.
LOPEZ: Do you ever worry you sound overly alarmist? Particularly about domestic threats?
STAKELBECK: Never. As I document in The Brotherhood, I have a very unique perspective that others might lack when discussing these threats. I have traveled the world to interview Muslim Brotherhood figures and wanted Islamic terrorists face-to-face, been in radical mosques, interviewed radical imams, and strolled through some of Europe’s more restless Islamist enclaves. My on-the-ground perspectives, combined with the hard facts and developments on the ground (including, for example, dozens upon dozens of Islamic terror-related arrests on U.S. soil since 2009 alone), have led me to the unpleasant conclusion that if we don’t wake up as a society, ditch political correctness, and acknowledge the existence of a formidable Islamist enemy that is devoted to our destruction, we’ll suffer through more domestic carnage like we saw in Boston and at Fort Hood, and make increasingly disastrous foreign-policy decisions vis-à-vis the Muslim world that will get more Americans needlessly killed: both “over there” and over here. And that doesn’t just mean violent jihad. The Muslim Brotherhood’s own strategic documents say the MB’s goal is to “destroy Western civilization from within.” Slow and steady.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.