After the first round of presidential elections this week in Egypt we know that the next Egyptian president will either be Ahmed Shafiq, a holdover from the Mubarak era, or Mohamed Mursi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. If the former wins, the Egyptian ‘revolution’ will be a failure, as yet another military man runs the country. If Mursi wins it would be a significant break from Egypt’s past, but could mean problems in its relationship with the west, and for its rather secular history.
There have already been claims of fraud by other candidates over the fact that Shafiq got into the second round. While Egyptian public opinion polling has been seen as unreliable, Shafiq was still considered a dark horse candidate. He was Mubarak’s last prime minister, and is now largely seen as the candidate of SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), the transitional military government.
The success of Mursi is a major break with Egypt’s past.The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and was put down by the Mubarak government in the years since. In this time they acted like a civil society group or charity. They also tried to work around the ban running members for parliament as independents. After the fall of Mubarak, the Brotherhood’s organizational strength gave them a leg up against other parties. Egyptian liberals were divided over whom to support and had no parties or organizations in which they could coalesce around and win elections. While there have been problems for the Brotherhood (such as going back on their initial pledge not to run a presidential candidate, once they realized SCAF didn’t want a strong parliament), they are still well positioned to do well in upcoming elections.
The United States has long avoided working close with Islamist parties in the Middle East like the Brotherhood, preferring instead the stability that strongmen like Hosni Mubarak and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen could provide. But now that a more democratic-era is on the horizon, American strategy needs to change. Not only is working with the Muslim Brotherhood in America’s own best interest, it will also mean that America’s Middle East policy will finally line up more with American ideals.
While many in Washington would be comfortable working with a military government in Cairo, the fall of Mubarak has already shown that Egyptians are fed up of the army dominating politics and the economy. The military is unlikely to trust the American government in the future, after it rather quickly jettisoned Mubarak, an ally for decades.
As the Brotherhood is likely to be the most successful political party in the near future anyway, it makes sense for the US to side with the winner. While it would have been good if liberal parties had done better in recent elections, the truth is that they fared poorly. If America supports the Brotherhood now, they’ll have more influence over them if they win. The Brotherhood is also better than the Salafist alternative. While the Brotherhood is an Islamist party, with all the problems that could entail, their Salafist rivals, Al-Nour, are much more radical and more likely to do something like back out of the Camp David peace accords with Israel.
By supporting the most popular party (which it appears the Brotherhood is), America would also be supporting the idea of democracy in the Middle East. While American leaders have always talked about the country as a “city upon a hill“, in practice America has been as prone to realpolitik as all states. In recent decades Washington has been more encouraging of democracy in Latin America, ceasing to prop up Caudillos to its south. Now is a good time to do the same in the Middle East. American support of men like Mubarak has long been a cause for anti-Americanism in the muslim world. It’s also been a motivator of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda (the groups current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was tortured by the Egyptian government in the early eighties).
However, there are problems with supporting the Brotherhood. While not as extreme as Al-Nour, they are still somewhat anti-American and anti-Israel. They are also Islamist and in favor of instituting Sharia law. But in this regard, they are much less fervent that Hamas, or the government of Saudi Arabia.
The security of Israel is an important American interest in the Middle East. Any future Egyptian government needs to stand by the Camp David Accords. The Brotherhood has said they will keep to the treaty, but relations with Israel won’t be as friendly as they were under Mubarak. The most likely scenario is that relations decline somewhat, as they have in Turkey under the AK Party. Its doubtful that the situation would become like that after the Iranian revolution, where the new regime became an avowed enemy of Israel.
Despite these arguments against, the United States should still try to make an ally out of the Brotherhood. The military were overthrown once, if they hold onto power, it is likely to happen again. America should support the strongest democratic party, which at the moment is the Brotherhood.