Magazine | September 10, 2012, Issue

The Abhorrent Vacuum

Mohamed Morsi (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

In the breast of the Western media, hopes of Arab Spring spring eternal. First we were told the Muslim Brotherhood would contest only a third of the seats in the Egyptian parliament, just to ensure they had some representation in the legislature among all those students, women, and Copts. Then we were told it would be half the seats, but don’t worry, they had no plans to contest the presidency. Next we were told they were taking a run at the presidency, but most unlikely to win compared with all those far more appealing time-serving hacks from transnationalist bureaucracies like the Arab League and the International Atomic Energy Agency who were itching to jump in the race. And finally, after the Brothers took the presidency and swept the parliament, we were assured that they could govern only in a finely calibrated balance of power with the secularist military.

Inevitably, within a few weeks of taking the oath of office, President Morsi fired the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, purged the top brass, including the chief of staff and the heads of the air force and navy, and reversed such restraints on his power as they’d imposed. Equally inevitably, the view from Washington was that this was no more than “a generational change in military leadership.” It is true that General Sisi is a younger man than Field Marshal Tantawi. However, the fact remains that, in his first month in office, Mohamed Morsi has accomplished what it’s taken the post-Kemalist regime in Turkey its first decade to pull off: the end of the army’s role as constitutional guardian.

Indeed, he seems to have ended the constitution, such as it is. No piece of paper gives him the unilateral power to revoke Article 25 of the constitution, but he did. No piece of paper gives him the authority to dismiss the Supreme Council’s constitutional declaration on parliament, but he did. Whatever new piece of paper eventually emerges will be written by men appointed by him alone. And why stop there? The independent newspaper al-Dustour (“The Constitution,” indeed) has just had a print run seized for “harming the president through phrases and wording punishable by law.” In whatever lucid moments he still enjoys in his prison cell, the unloved ex-“Pharaoh” must marvel at that CNN coverage of the “Facebook Revolution”: As Zvi Mazel wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “Morsi now holds dictatorial powers surpassing by far those of erstwhile president Hosni Mubarak.”

Last year, an hour after Mubarak’s resignation, I was interviewed on Fox News and said that this was the dawn of the post-Western Middle East. The modern Middle East was created by the British and French in the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Now another great power is waning — America — and in its own vacuum competing successors are jostling, as London and Paris did, for regional advantage: the Muslim Brothers taking power in the secular kleptocracies; a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, reluctant to let go of its client regime in Syria; and an ever more Islamized Turkey with neo-Ottoman ambitions in its old vilayets.

#page#You don’t have to be an uncovered woman or a Coptic Christian to recognize that King Farouk to Mubarak to the Muslim Brothers is a pretty perverse notion of progress. After 9/11, we chose to fight a war on “terror” — to campaign against the means rather than the ends. A decade later, men who share largely the same ends as al-Qaeda — the same view of society — control the second-biggest recipient of U.S. aid. Turkey is supposedly governed by “soft Islamists,” although Mr. Erdogan can butch it up when he wants to: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.” And, whatever nuanced differences one might detect, both Egypt and Turkey are now in the hands of conventional Islamic imperialists: As Erdogan told cheering crowds after his last election, “Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, the West Bank and Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir!”

That’s quite a sphere of influence he’s claiming. If Iran didn’t have compelling reasons to defy the West and go nuclear before the Arab Spring, it does now: The prototype Islamic Republic finds itself with rival models in Cairo and Ankara, and, in a contest for regional hegemony, imposing your nuclear umbrella on the Saudi monarchy and Gulf emirates is a relatively simple method of brand differentiation. I doubt the rivalry between the Sunni Brothers, the Shia ayatollahs, and the neo-Ottoman Turks can resolve itself peacefully, even before the nukes change the equation.

In an American election year, the Middle East is a side issue in a nation ever broker and, in large part, weary of global responsibilities it never sought. But, to modify Trotsky, you may not be interested in Islam, but Islam is interested in you. Would Morsi have moved so far so fast against a military bankrolled by U.S. taxpayers if he had thought Washington would push back? Probably not. But he read the Obama administration and correctly concluded he could do what he wanted and pay no price — as did Erdogan, a nominal NATO ally, when he all but formally broke off relations with Israel. As do the mullahs, daily. All three look at Washington and see a late Ottoman sultan: soft, pampered, decadent, weak, lounging on his cushions, puffing his hookah, but unable to rouse himself to impose his will. After Qaddafi, Hillary Clinton offered the following clunker of a sound bite: “We came, we saw, he died.” In reality, we’re gone, they saw, and the post-American world is being born.

–Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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