Barack Obama's Middle East Miscalculation

The dictatorship of one kind has gone, but democracy in the sense we understand it is somewhat delayed.

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A little-noticed event gives a grim insight into what is really happening in the Middle East. The euphoria of the "Arab Spring," the instant Twitter-style transition from dictatorship to democracy, is seen for what it is: an illusion. Yes, the dictatorship of one kind has gone, but democracy in the sense we understand it is, shall we say, somewhat delayed.

There have been any number of disappointments. The event that should give us pause about the underlying forces was obscured by the Christmas holiday. In mid-December, violent Islamic Salafist extremists burned down Cairo's famous scientific Institute d'Egypte, established by Napoleon in the late 18th century during a French invasion. The institute housed some 200,000 original and rare books, maps, archaeological objects, and rare nature studies from Egypt and the Middle East, the result of generations of work by researchers, mostly Western scholars. Zein Abdel-Hady, who runs Egypt's main library, remarked, "This is equal to the burning of Galileo's books."

The Salafists, who hate all things Western, no doubt saw their vandalism as an act of defiance against the West, destroying the precious documents of historical Egypt that were so intimately connected to the West. They are either too ignorant and/or too careless to realize that they were destroying their own heritage from Pharaonic Egypt.

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Last year in the Middle East was the most dramatic it has known for many. The series of uprisings in Egypt were marked by the emergence of Islamic forces from years of suppression. They scored dramatic political gains in Tunisia and Libya, too. Leaders who perceived themselves as invincible fell, one after the other, the most dramatic being the end of the rule of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.

The United States could not decide whether to support a regime that was disagreeable, but yet a strategic ally, or abandon it because it ignored fundamental American values like freedom and democracy (which means not just fair elections and majority rule, but respect for the rule of law, equal rights for women, tolerance of minorities, and freedom of expression). Alas, with the collapse of the Mubarak regime, the cause of freedom in Egypt is set back since, in the battle between the army and the conservative Islamic extreme, the Islamic bloc won by an overwhelming majority, with first place taken by the Muslim Brotherhood and second place grabbed by the Salafi extremists. By the time the elections are finished, there is likely to be at least a two thirds majority for an Islamist constitution. What we are witnessing is a democratic election of a dictatorship.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the turmoil in the Middle East.]

The White House completely miscalculated in Egypt, as it did in Gaza. It seemed only to care for the mechanics of the electoral process rather than the meaning of the results. Washington vacillated on who its Egyptian allies really are. We had long shared with the Egyptian military understandings on national security, ours with an eye to maintaining peace in the region. That relationship is now pretty much lost.

Americans, in their perennial innocence, have demanded that the generals turn over power to the civilians whomever they may be, just as they did to the Persian shah, just as they did after Israel's pullout from Gaza when they hadn't a clue about the danger posed by Hamas. Our ingenuous attitude has been tantamount to handing over Egypt on a silver platter to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, who ironically are coming into power as democrats.

Their new foreign policy will include opening the blockaded border with Gaza, ending normal relations with Israel, and opening them with Hamas and Iran in such a way as to alter the balance of power in the region against U.S. interests. Indeed, one of the few things that unites the political parties in Egypt is an anti-Western foreign policy. Cairo has already allowed Iran's warships to transit the Suez Canal; failed to protect pipelines supplying energy to Israel and Jordan; endorsed the union of Hamas and Fatah; and hosted conferences in support of "the resistance," that is, terrorism.