Analysis: US must redefine Mideast foreign policy


An Egyptian woman stands in front of graffiti reading "Revolution" at Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the popular revolt that drove President Hosni Mubarak from power after 30 years, Feb. 17, 2011.


Pedro Ugarte

CAIRO, Egypt — In the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, Osama bin Laden must be rolling over in his cave.

The largely non-violent demonstrations that toppled Hosni Mubarak undercut the whole ideology of Al Qaeda’s call for a violent struggle, or jihad, against America and the corrupt regimes it backs in the Muslim world.

The success of the Egyptian people has proven particularly effective in snuffing out Bin Laden’s incendiary deputy, the Egyptian Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has fanned the fires of a hateful theology known as “takfir.”

This theology dehumanizes as “infidels” anyone, including Muslims, who isn't committed enough to partake in a violent attempt to do away with an “apostate” like Mubarak. That’s how Zawahiri has justified Al Qaeda-inspired attacks and suicide bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt that have killed so many innocent Muslims and Westerners alike.

Zawahiri’s militant Islamist theology is dead wrong, and his fellow Egyptians just fought to prove to the world there is a better way. That better way rests with moderate Islamist movements, and the United States has the chance now to show the Muslim world that it agrees.

This historic moment in the Middle East presents an opening for U.S. foreign policy to get on the side of the protesters in support of burgeoning democracy. It is time for the U.S. to re-evaluate its relationship with moderate Islamist movements, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was not the lead actor in the demonstrations, but it played an important supporting role and made a conscious effort not to hijack the revolution away from idealistic young people brought together by social networking. 

I spent the last three weeks traveling from Kabul, where I interviewed Gen. David Petraeus and asked about the frustrating inability to bring to justice Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and on to Cairo, where I focused my reporting on the quiet role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s revolution and where the Islamists might fit in with a new Egypt.

Currently, the Muslim world sees hypocrisy in U.S. foreign policy. How is it that Washington can encourage the protesters in Iran, yet express reservations about demonstrations directed against the monarchy in Bahrain?

The easy answer is because Iran is an unpredictable enemy with an intent to develop nuclear weapon, while Bahrain is a strategic ally that allows the United States to dock the Fifth Fleet, the naval position from which the U.S. bases its initiative in the Persian Gulf.

This kind of practical “realism,” as they call it in diplomatic parlance, has worked for decades. It was an ideological architecture that sought to create stability, but wound up propping up regimes that have become unstable and are collapsing now from the weight of corruption and brutality.

The “Arab street,” as they call the seething masses who’ve been pushed down by autocratic regimes, is now taking action. It looks like they aren’t going to tolerate the double standard any longer.

Just look at how the protests in Bahrain are swinging toward violence. Look at the uprisings in Yemen, Algeria, Jordan, Libya and who knows where they may erupt next. 

The “Arab street” has a long list of grievances. At the top of the list is a sense that their economic future has been squandered. There are too few jobs and too little promise offered to throngs of unemployed youth by sclerotic monarchies and entrenched cleptocracies that have greedily stolen the proceeds of U.S. petro dollars and in some cases direct foreign aid.

Washington is eager to engage with more secular, Westernized political opposition figures such as Egypt’s Mohamed El-Baradei and Ayman Nour. But neither of these candidates has much support from the street. Both El-Baradei and Nour need to widen their horizons to consider the more muscular, working-class movement of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 and has a long and checkered past. But for the last three decades it has rejected the violence espoused by Zawahiri and Al Qaeda. It has sought to participate in Egypt’s democratic process, as deeply flawed as it was.

In 2005, after former President George W. Bush pushed for more fair elections in Egypt, the banned Brotherhood ran candidates as independents and took a surprising 20 percent of the parliament. Then Mubarak’s regime set out to diligently crush the Brotherhood and shut down the vast social-service network that fuels its popularity. Seeing that the elections were rigged in the fall of 2010, the Brotherhood boycotted elections rather than lose a fixed game.

There is a moment now for Washington to reconsider the Muslim Brotherhood and engage with a moderate Islamist movement. It is a long-shot that the United States will do this since the Brotherhood is opposed to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. (To be precise, the Brotherhood says it would press for the peace treaty to be put to a vote. And, as political analysts point out, it would not take a lot of polling to see the treaty would be overwhelmingly rejected by a majority of Egyptians.)

There is a brave new world for U.S. foreign policy to ponder in the Middle East. And it will take some clear thinking and creative ideas to move forward.

It will also take some bold steps. America owes it to the Egyptian people to show courage in how the State Department confronts its own hypocrisy as it sets out to redefine foreign policy in the Middle East.

GlobalPost Executive Editor and co-founder Charles M. Sennott was in Cairo working on a GlobalPost co-production with PBS Frontline. The documentary is titled “Revolution in Cairo” and it airs on PBS stations on Feb. 22.