2012-01-19 / Opinion

Trust, but verify in new Egypt

Thomas Friedman

A few items came across the desk last week that underscore the challenge America faces in making policy toward the Islamist parties that are emerging as the early beneficiaries of the uprisings across the Arab world.

The first was a news article about the Jan. 11 meeting in Cairo between Bill Burns, a deputy secretary of state, and Muhammad Morsi, the chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, during which Morsi said his party “believes in the importance of U. S.- Egyptian relations,” but said they “must be balanced.”

Two days later came a report from the Middle East Media Research Institute, which tracks the Arab media, about recent writings on the Muslim Brotherhood website, Ikhwanonline.com. It said the site “contains articles with anti-Semitic motifs, including Holocaust denial and descriptions of the ‘Jewish character’ as covetous, exploitative, and a source of evil in human society. ... Among these are articles calling to kill Zionists and praising the Sept. 9, 2011, attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo — which one article called a landmark of the Egyptian revolution.”

Finally, came the news that Naguib Sawiris — an Egyptian telecommunications mogul and Coptic Christian who is the founder of one of Egypt’s new secular, liberal parties — was being charged with “contempt of religion” for re-tweeting images from last June that show Mickey Mouse with a full beard and wearing a traditional Islamic robe and Minnie Mouse wearing a full-face veil with just slits for her eyes.

There are two ways to read these news reports. One is that the Brotherhood and other Islamists are cleverly hoodwinking the naive foreigners, feeding them the lines they want to hear. The other is that the Islamists never expected to be dominating Egypt’s new Parliament — with more responsibility than other parties for completing the country’s democratic transition, constitution writing and election of a new president — and they are trying to figure out how to reconcile some of their ideology, with all of their new responsibilities.

My view is that both can be — and are — true at the same time.

In my mind, we all have to guard against lazy happy talk about the rise of the Islamist parties in Egypt (“I’ve met with them; they all seem reasonable”) and lazy determinism (“ Just read what they say in Arabic. They clearly have a secret plan to take over Egypt”).

In the happy talk department, please don’t tell me that the rule of Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, proves that no one has anything to fear about Islamists taking power democratically. There is much I admire in the AKP’s performance. (The recent suggestion by Gov. Rick Perry of Texas that the AKP is a party of “Islamic terrorists” is shockingly stupid.) But I will only cite the AKP as a reassuring example of Islam and democracy in harmony after I see it lose an election and vacate power. That is the real test. As The Economist noted about the rule of the AKP in Turkey in its Nov. 26 issue, “Around 76 journalists are now behind bars” in Turkey, “more than in China, many of them for supposed terrorist crimes. ... The West does not seem to notice the steady deterioration in human rights in Turkey, instead extolling it as a model for the Arab spring.”

U.S. policy needs to be based on the assumption that, like all parties, Islamist parties contain moderates, centrists and hardliners — and, in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, lots of small businessmen. Which wing will dominate as they assume the responsibilities of governing is still an open question.

America needs to offer the Islamists firm, quiet (you can easily trigger a nationalist backlash) and patient engagement that says: “We believe in free and fair elections, human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, free markets, civilian control of the military, religious tolerance and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and we will offer assistance to anyone who respects those principles.”

Egypt is not destined to be Iran, but the Muslim Brotherhood is not destined to be the Muslim version of Christian Democrats either. There is an evolution under way — this is a very plastic moment — and our best chance of having an effect is to make sure we deal in a principled way with the Islamists (and also, by the way, with Israel, as the Islamists will be watching for any double standard) and with the Egyptian Army. The Egyptian Army is also trying to figure out its role in this new Egypt. It is balancing its desire to protect its economic interests, avoid prosecution for any killings of demonstrators and maintain its status as guardian of Egypt’s secular nationalist tradition. We need the Egyptian Army to play the constructive role that the Turkish Army once played — as midwife and protector of a gradual democratic transition — and not become the Pakistani Army, which evolved into a predatory institution dedicated to an aggressive foreign policy to justify its huge budget.

In short, the days of dealing with Egypt with one phone call to one man just one time are over. This is going to require really, really, really sophisticated diplomacy with multiple players — seven days a week.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN writes for The New York Times.

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