Politics & Policy

How Obama Sided with the Muslim Brotherhood

Anti-Morsi protesters at Tahrir Square in Cairo, July 3, 2014. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Starting a year ago this week, Obama seemed to choose the worst over the bad in Egypt.

Caught between military dictatorship and Muslim Brotherhood rule, Egyptians face a choice between bad and worse. Through its rhetoric and aid policy, Obama administration has consistently favored the worst of the bad lot.

Today, Thursday, July 3, marks the one-year anniversary of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi’s ouster from the presidency by the Egyptian military in the wake of massive protests. Morsi’s successor, former defense minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was sworn in as president this past June 8.

While Sisi is undeniably authoritarian, he has not openly allied himself with jihadi terrorists as Morsi has. In his inaugural address, Morsi announced his intention to agitate for the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman from U.S. custody. Rahman, known in the U.S. as the “blind sheikh,” is implicated in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, and numerous other terrorist plots.

Responsible foreign policy requires the ability to distinguish between bad outcomes, and a willingness to accept something less than desirable when necessary. In Egypt, the Obama administration has treated military rule as the worst, and perhaps the only, catastrophe that could befall Egypt. Whether intentionally or not, this line of thinking has led to policies that favor Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.  

Consider the way Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided Morsi with verbal support in the critical days leading up to the June 24, 2012, presidential election. In a discussion hosted at the State Department three days before the election, Clinton said it was “imperative that the military fulfill its promise to the Egyptian people to turn power over to the legitimate winner.” She also warned about the danger of “backtracking,” to a military regime.

In a different context, those remarks would be entirely reasonable. The rub is that Morsi’s competitor, Ahmed Shafiq, was a military man denounced by critics as a throwback to the Mubarak regime. Clinton’s uttering of these words in the eleventh hour of the campaign — without any warning about the dangers of Islamist government — could only have undermined him.

The Obama administration’s use of foreign aid — arguably America’s biggest political lever — has also tended to favor the Muslim Brotherhood. Thanks to the Camp David accords, Egypt receives $1.5 billion of aid annually, most of which is earmarked for the military. That makes Egypt the second biggest recipient of U.S. aid next to Israel. Both countries have come to rely on the aid.

In 2011, Obama signed a law that made aid to Egypt contingent on the State Department’s assurance that Egypt was making progress on human rights. When Morsi won the presidency, there was no indication that this was the case. Many in Congress, including Democratic stalwart Patrick Leahy, expected to see the aid suspended until such progress was seen. The law, however, allowed for the secretary of state to sign a waiver for national security reasons. And that is what Clinton did.

Critics were especially galled that the Obama administration was prepared to provide the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government with 20 F-16 fighter jets and 200 tanks based on an aid package that had been agreed upon when Mubarak, a long-time American ally, was in power. Twelve of these planes were delivered before Morsi’s ouster.

Upon the news of Morsi’s overthrow, a White House press release urged the army “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible” and “to avoid arbitrary arrests of Mr. Morsi and his supporters.” To his credit, Obama refrained from demanding Morsi’s re-installment or calling the ouster a “coup,” which, by law, would require immediately terminating aid at a critical moment.   

Yet the flow of aid did slow, starting with the transfer of the fighter planes. A Washington Post article quotes Pentagon press secretary George Little as saying: “Given the current situation in Egypt, we do not believe it is appropriate to move forward at this time with the delivery of F-16s.”

The White House said this decision did not have implications for the $1.5 billion in foreign aid that Egypt had come to expect. Then, following Sisi’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood — and while the United States was distracted by the 2013 government shutdown — the Obama administration suspended most of that aid as well.

The stall has continued into this year amid human rights abuses by the government, but a substantial chunk, $572 million, was released during Secretary of State John Kerry’s June 22 visit to Cairo. It appears that the remainder is being used as a carrot to encourage the government to treat the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate political actor, rather than an Islamist enemy of the country. At the time of the visit, an aide to Kerry said:

We do not share the view of the Egyptian government about links between the Muslim Brothers and terrorist groups like ISIS [the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq]., [Egyptian leaders] need to include, and find ways to reach out to, the Muslim Brothers.# …# With regard to the challenge that the Muslim Brothers pose, I would characterize it more as a political challenge than a security challenge.

This may be how the Obama administration sees the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is not how Sisi sees the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is not how the Muslim Brothers see themselves. The Obama administration must learn that there isn’t always a “third way.” Sometimes decisions are between bad and worse. Ignoring reality only makes the worst more likely.

— Spencer Case is an intern at National Review.

Spencer Case — Mr. Case is a writer, podcaster, and philosophy lecturer currently living in Wuhan, China, with his wife.


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