By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON – How did Washington become the best friend of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even as President Mohamed Morsi was asserting dictatorial powers and his followers were beating up secular liberals in the streets of Cairo? It’s a question many Arabs are asking these days and it deserves an answer.
Morsi and his Brotherhood followers are on a power trip after decades of isolation and persecution. You could see that newfound status when Morsi visited the United Nations in September, and even more in the diplomacy that led to last month’s cease-fire in Gaza, brokered by Morsi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Brotherhood leaders had gone from outcasts to superstars, and they were basking in the attention.
And let’s be honest: The Obama administration has been Morsi’s main enabler.
Morsi’s unlikely role as a peacemaker is the upside of the “cosmic wager” Obama has made on the Muslim Brotherhood.
But power corrupts, and this is as true with the Muslim Brotherhood as with any other group that suddenly finds itself in the driver’s seat after decades of ostracism. Probably thinking he had America’s backing, Morsi overreached on Nov. 22 by declaring that his presidential decrees were not subject to judicial review. His followers claim he was trying to protect Egypt’s revolution from judges appointed by Hosni Mubarak. But that rationale has worn thin as members of Morsi’s government resigned in protest, thousands of demonstrators took the streets and, ominously, Muslim Brotherhood supporters began counterattacking with rocks, clubs and metal pipes.
Through this upheaval, the Obama administration has been oddly restrained.
“You need you to explain to me why the U.S. reaction to Morsi’s behavior is so muted,” one Arab official wrote me.
The administration’s rejoinder is that this isn’t about America. Egyptians and other Arabs are writing their history now, and they will have to live with the consequences. Moreover, the last thing secular protesters need is an American embrace. That’s surely true, but it’s crazy for America to appear to take sides against those who want a liberal, tolerant Egypt.
When assessing the turbulent events in the Arab world, we should remind ourselves that we’re witnessing a revolution that may take decades. With the outcome so hard to predict, it’s a mistake to make big bets on any particular player. The U.S. role should be to support the broad movement for change and economic development, and to keep lines open to whatever democratic governments emerge.
America will help the Arab world through this turmoil if it states clearly that U.S. policy is guided by its interests and values, not by transient alliances and friendships. If Morsi wants to be treated as a democratic leader, he will have to act like one.
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.