Dr. Reuven Berko has a PhD in Middle East studies, is a commentator on Israeli Arabic TV programs and writes for the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom. Dr, Berko is considered on Israel's top experts on Arab Affairs. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
Recently, some commentators in the Arab world and liberals in Egypt have denounced the American administration's policies in the Middle East as dangerously confused, especially after Obama criticized and invoked sanctions against the provisional Egyptian government of President Adly Mansour and General Sisi, which was set up after the military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government and ousted President Mohamed Morsi. The Obama administration did not actually call it a military coup, but its hesitant flip-flop policies left a string of question marks regarding the Americans' future position. In the Middle East indecisiveness is always interpreted as weakness, and it encourages terrorism and invites America's rivals, like Russia, Iran and China, to fill the gap. And in light of the new sanctions imposed on General Sisi, it is only a matter of time before Egypt decides to abandon its long time ally and run into the hands of the Russians.
Some in the Middle East criticized Obama for the way he abandoned Hosni Mubarak, a sworn supporter of the United States, just like the Shah of Iran was abandoned by the United States only to be replaced by the most fanatical terrorist and anti American regime in modern history. The American administration's excuse was ostensibly "democracy," which has replaced patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel, which made it support the mass popular rebellion that overthrew the Mubarak regime. The "Arab Spring" was followed, as could only be expected in the Middle East, by an Islamist takeover accompanied by corruption, social and economic decline, the oppression of women, wanton rape and terrorism, reminiscent of the way the Carter administration abandoned the Shah of Iran and allowed the Ayatollahs to take control of Iran.
Obama's condemnation's of the military takeover has been focused on two Egyptian figures, provisional President Adly Mansour and Minister of Defense Abdel Sisi, for their use of deadly force to disperse tens of thousands of "demonstrators" that had begun to paralyze Cairo. Despite tendentious reports to the contrary in the American media and wishful thinking among Western diplomats, the Muslim Brotherhood leaders were never close to a deal to abandon the streets. Their demands were always the same: Re-instate Muslim Brotherhood leader Morsi or the demonstrations will get worse. There was no compromise in the air despite the breathless and naïve reporting of the New York Times. Moreover, what the western media failed to report was that the demonstrators were armed with submachine guns and Molotov cocktails, and had turned the squares into arms depots and strongholds of terrorism; their threat to unleash terrorist thugs unless Morsi was re-instated were not hidden. And in effect Mansour and Sisi saved Egypt from the fanaticism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Liberal and secular Egyptians—who have been portrayed by the Western media as having fallen under some type of "hypnotic" trance by the military in their utter rejection of the Brotherhood-- regard Obama's condemnation of the overthrow of the fanatical Islamist regime as treachery, as attempted blackmail and as support for the Islamic radicals and terrorists who paralyzed Egypt's economy and threatened to impose an Islamist dictatorship.
The Obama administration's stated position strengthened the Muslim Brotherhood and exposed the members of the provisional government to assassination, because if the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were to decide the fate of the current confrontation they would erect gallows in the squares and hang the government officials. The American condemnation also challenged Al-Azhar, considered Egypt's most important Islamic traditional religious institution, headed by Sheikh Muhammad al-Tayib, who openly supports the provisional government. It also categorically ignored the Islamist terrorism in the streets which burned museums and government buildings, as well as scores of Coptic churches throughout the country and attacked and killed Copts and destroyed their property. The attacks increased after Tawadros II, the Coptic Pope, publicly supported Mansour and Sisi.
Doubts regarding the wisdom of the American administration increased after Obama announced, following the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations by the Egyptian security forces, that the United States would not give the Egyptian army fighter planes as promised and was cancelling the planned joint military exercise. The Egyptian military, supported by a majority of Egyptian citizens, regarded the announcement as flagrant external intervention in its internal affairs and as blatant, calculated, unilateral support of the Islamists in a confrontation that has yet to end.
More absurd was the timing of the American announcement, close to a similar announcement and the imposition of sanctions on Egypt by Erdogan, Turkey's Islamist prime minister. Curiously, the two Muslim leaders that President Obama consulted was Prime Minister Erdogan, a radical Islamist whose anti-Semitic rantings were second only to former Iranian leader Ahmadinejad and the Emir of Qatar, the largest financial and political supporter of the totalitarian Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan himself recently imprisoned the senior officers in his army, sealing for generations Turkey's fate as an Islamist country, besides prosecuting and jailing scores of journalists who dared to criticize Erdogan's increasing dictatorial behavior. He is known for his support of and membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and his affiliation with Hamas, the Gazan terrorist organization. When the Turkish government actively participated in sending the terrorist ship Mavi Marmara to Israel, the American administration had nothing to say, but it was only too willing to join Turkey in condemning Egypt.
"Interests" is a dirty word
The Obama administration is careful not to call the change in government in Egypt a military coup, because then it would automatically have to stop its economic aid to starving Egypt. However, there is still a danger that the administration, whose policy moves can never be anticipated, might define the provisional government (which has stated its commitment to bring a genuine democratic change to Egypt and already has announced a Road Map for it) as such. The Obama Administration is littered by pro-Islamists—from the head of the CIA to the top anti terrorism advisor at the National Security Council. And if they have their way the administration will freeze military, financial and logistic aid to the country, inflicting more unnecessary suffering on its population. It will also damage America's strategic interests, one of which is Egypt's peace agreement with Israel, as well as regional stability and the free passage of American armed forces through Egyptian airspace and the Suez Canal. To destroy these pro Western policies because of pro Muslim Brotherhood sympathies by the Obama Administration is nothing short of US suicide not to mention the likelihood that the peace accords with Israel, which the US assiduously nurtured since 1979, will almost certainly unravel as the growing hatred of the Americans proliferates among the military and the Egyptian public.
The problem is that the Islamists are effectively encouraged and strengthened by the Obama administration's convoluted threats, blackmail and double standard in its dealings with the provisional government. It is not a question of sophisticated planning, because threats that cannot be carried out are pointless. Since America's own strategic considerations preclude freezing aid to Egypt, its policy of hesitation is hypocritical and reflects a fear of taking a firm stand in support of American interests.
It is clearly in America's interests to destroy the Islamist terrorist elements inspired and nurtured by the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban and various other global jihad organizations and networks. During the confrontations in Egypt the connection between Muhammad al-Zawahiri, one of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt who was also responsible for terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, and his brother Ayman al-Zawahiri, commander of Al-Qaeda, was exposed. It would have been better if the American administration had waited on the sidelines and then supported the winning side, but Obama's hasty condemnation of the new Egyptian government was manifestly counter-productive and showed a demonstrable lack of strategic vision. It was a gamble made with losing cards, the result of misguided, delusional considerations, abetted no doubt by those advisors in the Administration that see the Muslim Brotherhood a "peaceful" political party that has no ulterior agenda in promoting an exclusive religious theocracy.
Even more absurd is that while the American administration denounced Egypt, Arab states considered veteran supporters of the United States such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Kuwait all publicly congratulated the new government, and praised it for using necessary force against the terrorist thugs who had taken over its squares. Saudi Arabia even sent Egypt three field hospitals. Those countries publicly stated that Mansour and Sisi had saved Egypt, the Middle East and possibly even the entire world from the Muslim Brotherhood and catastrophe. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose agenda includes terrorism, is currently fighting for its life in the Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and North Africa and also against the West. It is enthusiastically supported by Qatar, a double agent whose security is propped up by American fleets but which supports the Muslim Brotherhood through its TV station, Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera openly supports radical Islamism and incites its viewers against the West and its allies.
Morsi's year-long Muslim Brotherhood government openly did everything in its power to implement the teachings of Hassan an-Banna, Sayyid Qutb and other radical Islamists and turn Egypt into a totalitarian Islamist state, while failing as a government in every respect. Hosni Mubarak was arrested and tried while anyone in the government not affiliated the Muslim Brotherhood was summarily thrown out of office; laws were passed to perpetuate Islamic rule and a covert civilian vigilante force was set up to deal with opponents. The masses that gathered in the squares of Egypt on June 30 to call for the ouster of Mohamed Morsi did not assemble on a whim and the army under Sisi did not answer the call on a whim. Only the Obama administration refuses to face the facts.
Egypt is now deliberating the possibility of outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood. The son of Mohammed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood's General Guide, was killed in the riots, and the more blood shed, the more intransigent both sides become. The provisional government is becoming stronger and is determined to carry out its plans to implement its Road Map, hold presidential and parliamentary elections and change the constitution. If and when America wakes up and declares its support for the victorious temporary government it will be too late, and both the Egyptian government and army will bear America a grudge for its percieved treachery, lack of understanding and defacto blackmail.
Those sentiments were hinted at in the most recent speech given by Nabil Fahmi, the Egyptian foreign minister, who said he respected the attempts of the international community to mediate, and accepted the condemnations from the West and the withdrawal of the Egyptian ambassadors as legitimate protests against the provisional government despite its desire for democratization. However, in the name of Egyptian honor and the important mutual interests of everyone concerned, he rejected the attempt to make an internal Egyptian affair international, to dictate to Egypt and blackmail it by threatening to withhold military and economic aid. The provisional government would not backtrack, he said, and he rejected any attempt to interfere in Egypt's internal affairs while it was being forced to fight a war of attrition against Islamist terrorism which did not hesitate to use weapons, commit murder, vandalize government buildings, and burn museums and churches.
The Double Standard as Official Policy
The Islamists in Egypt are strong and well organized, and can always send rioters to the squares and voters to the polls. The Muslim Brotherhood used the democratic process only once, as a way of leveraging the movement into power, and then ignored it. The Morsi government was a total economic failure and its alleged official opposition to the global jihad terrorism and Hamas in the Sinai Peninsula was lukewarm and ambiguous at best. In reality, the Morsi regime gave carte blanche to Hamas to operate throughout Egypt and despite an agreement signed with the US, still allowed long range Iranian rockets to be openly shipped to Gaza via Rafah.
The "Zionist entity" was repeatedly condemned in Morsi's speeches —as well as his references to Jews as "sons of pigs and monkeys", but the United States, in the name of "democracy," let it pass and never said a thing. The upper echelons of the Turkish army, envisioned by Ataturk as a counterweight to the forces of radical Islam, were thrown into prison by Erdogan. In the name of "democracy," Washington also let that pass. Now, at the eleventh hour, when the Egyptian army and police have rescued Egypt from a similar fate, it is the Egyptian army Obama wants to punish with sanctions. It has never imposed sanctions with such glee and alacrity before, not even in situations which were far more serious and involved sworn enemies of the United States, such as Iran and North Korea.
With the help of Hezbollah and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Bashar Assad daily slaughters his own people. Syria attracts Islamist terrorists like a magnet, whether from Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Front or the other jihadist terrorist organizations inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. They threaten to turn Syria into a terrorist state like its next-door neighbor, Hezbollah's Lebanon. So far more than 100,000 Syrian civilians have been killed and more than 2 million Syrian civilians have fled to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Despite violations of "red lines" by Assad's use of weapons of mass destruction, Washington is silent on that account as well.
Everything General Sisi has done to thwart Islamist terrorism in Egypt is dwarfed by the ongoing catastrophe in Syria and the terrorism in Lebanon, and there too, Washington not only lets it pass but is apparently incapable of making any kind of operative decision. Russia, on the other hand, is only too willing to support Assad's failing regime regardless of the horrors, because of its bases in Tartus and Latakia and its other regional interests. Putin does not hesitate or justify his actions with hypocritical slogans when it comes to protecting Russian interests, and his status in the Middle East only improves. In the meantime, Washington's policies have effectively disappeared except in empty rhetorical declarations void of any political or military back up.
Apparently, the American administration does not dare impose sanctions on its real rivals, like the Russians, the Iranians, the Chinese, the North Koreans and the Syrians, to name but a few. It does not take the morning after into consideration, when the liberals in the provisional Egyptian government will undoubtedly remember America's unilateral support of Mohamed Morsi and the gratuitous sanctions it imposed on its Egyptian friends. Obama's advisors have no idea of the depth of the grudge the Egyptians will bear and the possible influence on American interests and Egypt's peace with Israel their actions may have. They also have no idea of how far America's star has fallen in the Middle East.
The Emperor Is Naked
In the spirit of hypocrisy and double standards, the Obama administration acts decisively only when it comes to Israel. The Shi'ite-Sunni conflict in Iraq, the Sudanese attacks in Darfur, the civil war in Syria, all the sectarian chaos and mass murder in the Middle East notwithstanding, the Americans continue to claim that a solution to the Palestinian problem will bring redemption to the world and end all strife. The threats of Secretary of State John Kerry, that if Israel does not progress in its negotiations with the Palestinians to his satisfaction it will face an international delegitimization campaign "on steroids," together with an EU boycott of the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, look like a deliberate conspiracy to exert pressure on the Netanyahu government and to manipulate it. In the end, Washington is implementing a policy designed to undermine the security of its best friends while empowering those forces whose ideological agenda is openly committed to destroying Western values, freedoms and interests.
The situation in the Middle East is absurd. Seen from this part of the world, where existential terrorist threats proliferate every day, the Obama administration has been exposed as hesitant, delusional and indecisive in the face of America's regional challenges. His advisors panicked when Al-Qaeda prisoners escaped from Iraqi jails and they closed the American embassies in Yemen and other Arab countries because of an Al-Qaeda scare and evacuated their staffs. Such conduct only serves to strengthen the motivation of the Islamist terrorists. The question that has to be asked is how the American administration allows itself to be perceived as weak, hesitant and frightened, to hold hundreds of suspected terrorists prisoner at Guantanamo and has no compunction about dictating that Israel release scores of Palestinian murderers responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians as the price for negotiations with the Palestinians.
How, in fact, does the Obama administration dare dictate to Israelis to withdraw to borders that will expose an entire population to clear and certain terrorist threats while it spirits its own employees away at the slightest whiff of an intelligence threat? After all is said and done, Israelis are not salaried embassy clerks in a foreign country but resident civilians, women and children. If the government of Israel wants to follow the American model, where can it send its citizens, who day and night live under the threat of Palestinian terrorism a hundred times more virulent than the perhaps threat that sent American clerks skittering from the Middle East.
There is something strange about the Obama administration and the way it makes its decisions regarding Islam. Abdel Fattah el Sisi saved the Middle East and the rest of the world from the rule of yet another terrorist state, and Obama, trapped in the dream that the murderous Islamists will, in his honor, change their stripes, condemns his brave act. There is almost no obstacle in the Middle East that has not caused the captains of the American administration to fall flat on their faces. As the Arab proverb describing the realpolitik approach of the Middle East says, the man who marries my mother I have to call my uncle. If the Americans want to preserve their precious strategic interests, they will have to adopt a rational policy and fully understand and internalize what happened in Egypt, and support the provisional government immediately.
The Obama administration has alienated the Egyptian military and the majority of Egyptians and that is certain to damage its relations with the Egyptian army and Egypt's relations with its allies. The administration has been acting against its own best interests in the Middle East. That might possibly be the consequence of a sophisticated plan, one so intricate and profound that perhaps its secret wisdom cannot easily be understood. However, it is hard to shake off the growing concern that the president is, in fact, naked, and that whoever tailored his policies has not done their homework and has no understanding of the Middle East.