Tom Friedman gets one rightObama has messed up so badly in Egypt that even his New York Times cheerleader, Tom Friedman, realizes that something is wrong.
Egypt is in dire economic condition. Youth unemployment is rampant, everything is in decay, tourism and foreign investment and reserves are down sharply. As a result, Egypt needs an I.M.F. bailout. Any bailout, though, will involve economic pain — including cuts in food and fuel subsidies to shrink Egypt’s steadily widening budget deficit. This will hurt.
In order to get Egyptians to sign on to that pain, a big majority needs to feel invested in the government and its success. And that is not the case today. Morsi desperately needs a national unity government, made up of a broad cross-section of Egyptian parties, but, so far, the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to reach any understanding with the National Salvation Front, the opposition coalition.
Egypt also desperately needs foreign investment to create jobs. There are billions of dollars of Egyptian capital sitting outside the country today, because Egyptian investors, particularly Christians, are fearful of having money confiscated or themselves arrested on specious charges, as happened to some after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall. One of the best things Morsi could do for himself and for Egypt would be to announce an amnesty of everyone from the Mubarak era who does not have blood on his hands or can be proved in short order to have stolen government money. Egypt needs every ounce of its own talent and capital it can mobilize back home. This is no time for revenge.
The Brotherhood, though, doesn’t just need a new governing strategy. It needs to understand that its version of political Islam — which is resistant to women’s empowerment and religious and political pluralism — might be sustainable if you are Iran or Saudi Arabia, and you have huge reserves of oil and gas to buy off all the contradictions between your ideology and economic growth. But if you are Egypt and basically your only natural resource is your people — men and women — you need to be as open to the world and modernity as possible to unleash all of their potential for growth.
Hmmm. Where have I heard that before?Bottom line: Either the Muslim Brotherhood changes or it fails — and the sooner it realizes that the better. I understand why President Obama’s team prefers to convey this message privately: so the political forces in Egypt don’t start focusing on us instead of on each other. That’s wise. But I don’t think we are conveying this message forcefully enough. And Egyptian democracy advocates certainly don’t. In an open letter to President Obama last week in Al-Ahram Weekly, the Egyptian human rights activist Bahieddin Hassan wrote Obama that the muted “stances of your administration have given political cover to the current authoritarian regime in Egypt and allowed it to fearlessly implement undemocratic policies and commit numerous acts of repression.”
But Jonathan Tobin argues, correctly, that Friedman does not go far enough.
Yet as right as Friedman is about the current situation, his advice about the Brotherhood having to change or fail misses the point about a movement that has no intention of ever allowing power to slip from its hands. Friedman is right that the Brotherhood’s version of political Islam will sink Egypt into poverty. The problem is that they are no more willing or capable of becoming more democratic or open-minded about non-Islamist culture than they are of ever accepting peace with Israel.
Friedman praises what he claims is an Obama administration decision to convey their concerns about the direction of Egypt privately rather than publicly. He also supports an apparent decision to invite Morsi to Washington for a visit where he can try to charm the U.S. into keeping the flow of American taxpayer dollars into his government’s coffers.
But the more time the U.S. takes in conveying the message that it will not back an Egyptian government intent on an Islamist kulturkampf, the less chance there will be that it can influence events in Cairo. We already know what a bad bet Obama has made in backing Morsi and the Brotherhood. It may already be too late to reverse the damage that was done by the president’s feckless embrace of the Islamists. If, as Friedman acknowledges, the direction the Brotherhood is taking Egypt, and by extension the region, is one that can lead to chaos, tyranny and violence, an American decision to cut Morsi off can’t come too soon.Yes, but there is no sign that a decision by President Obama to cut Morsi off is anywhere in the offing. I would not expect that to happen.
What could go wrong?