Egypt in Danger of Becoming America's Greatest Middle East Enemy

The United States should not do anything that would strengthen Islamic, pro-Iranian political parties.


[See editorial cartoons about the Egyptian protests.]

Remember when Egyptians had the chance to choose their legislators in 2005? Where they could, they favored the totalitarian Muslim Brotherhood. If that happens again, the United States' greatest ally in the region will become its greatest enemy, and Israel's peace partner will become its greatest foe. As Bernard Lewis, the renowned historian of Islam, said recently: "Many of our so-called friends in the region are inefficient kleptocracies. But they're better than the Islamic radicals." It's a judgment that is well captured in the phrase "the evil of two lessers."

We should not do anything that would strengthen Islamic, pro-Iranian, anti-American political parties. That is what happened in Iran, where the Islamists took over with their powerful and disciplined forces, killing or exiling secular pro-democratic politicians; in the Gaza Strip, where premature legislative elections gave a victory to Hamas; and in Lebanon, where the government is now dominated by Hezbollah. All these parties pledged nonviolence, only to reveal that those who murder can surely lie. The leader or supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohammed Badie, made no bones about it in a sermon last year: "The history of freedom is not written in ink but in blood." Exploiting the democratic process to establish an Islamic regime is the Brotherhood's entryway to power.

Think of what would happen if Iran poured millions and millions of dollars into the Muslim Brotherhood so it could disburse the money to the vast proportions of the Egyptian population who live on less than $2 a day in order to influence the election. Then we may recall the words of the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats: "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned."

How would America handle such a catastrophe? How would it react to a leadership committed to the decapitation or stoning of gays, adulterers, and apostates; that endorses amputating the limbs of petty thieves; and that sanctifies suicide bombings and promotes genocide? Remember what happened in Gaza in 2006 when there was a reckless rush to elections without a foundation of democratic institutions. Once Hamas was in power, its version of democracy included throwing political rivals off rooftops, shooting opponents in the kneecaps, and executing women. The Hamas-dominated Palestinian parliament has not convened in the three years since that violence, and Hamas leaders say the party will boycott elections that the Palestinian Authority has called for.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has wisely resisted playing to the gallery on Egypt. "It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy," she said early this month. "Not faux democracy." This is the heart of the matter. America cannot sanctify an election process and ignore the risks of the outcome.

Egyptian society needs time to prepare for elections and to remediate the effects of years of government oppression. Non-Islamist parties must have an opportunity to emerge and fill in the intervening political space to compete with the Brotherhood. We must give secular democrats a chance, for if Egypt's revolution is usurped by the Brotherhood, the emergence of an autocratic strongman, far worse than Mubarak, will only be a matter of time. The test is not the first election, but rather whether there can be a second fair election.

The most reliable institution in Egypt is the army. It is the anchor of stability, continuity, and, ironically enough, peace as well. Its popular image is "defender of the homeland," and its veterans are perceived as war heroes. Properly inspired, the Egyptian army can provide a bridge to a future civilian government in Cairo. It can play a vital role in modernizing Egyptian society and checking the excesses of religious politics. It can introduce a new constitution that enjoys broad support and includes checks and balances that would make it difficult for minorities to rule majorities.