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Foreign Policy: It Ain't Just A River In Egypt

An Egyptian demonstrator uses goggles and a protective mask against tear gas fired by riot police during confrontations outside Cairo's security headquarters on February 6. i

An Egyptian demonstrator uses goggles and a protective mask against tear gas fired by riot police during confrontations outside Cairo's security headquarters on February 6. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
An Egyptian demonstrator uses goggles and a protective mask against tear gas fired by riot police during confrontations outside Cairo's security headquarters on February 6.

An Egyptian demonstrator uses goggles and a protective mask against tear gas fired by riot police during confrontations outside Cairo's security headquarters on February 6.

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pulls up to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo this week, he will see a protest outside its walls. Just steps away from Tahrir Square, supporters of Omar Abdel Rahman have been staging a sit-in for nearly a year to protest the imprisonment of the man known as the "Blind Sheikh," who is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison for planning terrorist attacks on American soil.

Upon Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit just weeks before, these protesters were joined on the embassy's doorstep by a group often seen as more sympathetic to U.S. values and policies: Egypt's liberals. This time, they had lost some of that sympathy.

The protests, by themselves, weren't entirely unexpected — after all, no one in Egypt these days seems to have much praise for President Barack Obama's administration. And liberals, due to their perceived closeness to the West, have often had to overcompensate to shore up their nationalist bona fides. After all, it wasn't the Muslim Brotherhood but, rather, liberal standard-bearer Amr Hamzawy who refused to meet in February with Sen. John McCain due to his "biased positions in favor of Israel and his support for invading Iraq and attacking Iran."

What is different about this most recent surge in anti-Americanism is its conspiratorial bent. Some of Egypt's most prominent liberal and leftist politicians are telling anyone who will listen that the United States is in bed with the Islamists. Such allegations would be concerning on their own, but they're even more troubling for what they represent — Egyptian liberals' growing ambivalence and even opposition to democratic rule. The rise of what we might call "undemocratic liberals" is threatening Egypt's fledgling democracy.

The suspicion that the United States is secretly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood sounds far-fetched, in part because it is. I remember first hearing a variation on the theory from a top Egyptian official in January: He spoke at some length of a U.S. master plan to install a grand Islamist alliance in government, including not just the Brotherhood but also more radical Salafists. Initially, I thought he might be making a meta-commentary on the absurdity of conspiracy theories. He wasn't.

Over the course of Egypt's troubled transition, liberal resentment has only grown. This month, former presidential candidate Abul-Ezz el-Hariri claimed that the Obama administration was backing the Brotherhood so it could then use the establishment of Egyptian theocracy as a pretext for an Iraq-style invasion. Most of the allegations, however, have not aspired to the same level of creativity. Emad Gad of the Social Democratic Party, a leading liberal party, asserted that the United States was "working with purpose and diligence in order to enable the forces of political Islam to control the institutions of the Egyptian state."

It was Gad who would capture in a few choice words the newfound merger of anti-Americanism and anti-democratic sentiment. "It's an Egyptian issue. It's not for the secretary of state," he told the New York Times. "We are living in an unstable period. If the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] goes back to its barracks, the Brotherhood will control everything."

Liberals' fears have increasingly dovetailed with those of Egypt's Coptic Christian community, which makes up perhaps 10 percent of the population and is understandably suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, after decades of ambiguous statements on minority rights. On the first day of Clinton's visit, four of the country's leading Coptic figures released a statement saying, "Clinton's desire to meet Coptic politicians after having met with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi leaders is a kind of a sectarian provocation which the Egyptian people and Copts in particular reject." It has reached the point, they wrote, where the United States had backed one candidate — referring to the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy — in the presidential election.

The belief that the United States was behind Morsy's victory has spread among anti-Brotherhood groups. Before the final election results were announced on June 24, a coalition of leading liberal parties held a news conference condemning the Obama administration for backing Morsy's candidacy. "We refuse that the reason someone wins is because he is backed by the Americans," said the Democratic Front Party's Osama el-Ghazali Harb, who was an influential figure in former President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party before resigning in 2006.

In all these examples, no evidence was provided to substantiate the allegations, in part because no such evidence exists.

When asked to explain how they came to believe in a U.S.-Brotherhood "deal," Egyptians point to innocuous pro-democracy statements from U.S. officials, such as Clinton urging that the Egyptian military "turn power over to the legitimate winner" of presidential elections. One organizer of the anti-Clinton protests, the Free Front for Peaceful Change, accused the United States of attempting to "impose its hegemony" on Egypt because of a July 4 statement by U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson in which she said, "The return of a democratically elected parliament, following a process decided by Egyptians, will also be an important move forward."

A cui bono conspiratorial mindset has taken hold. The United States says it supports a "full transition" to democracy. The Brotherhood, being the largest, best-organized party in Egypt, naturally stands to benefit most from such a transition. This, in turn, must mean that the United States supports the Brotherhood. In other words, more democracy means more Islamism, so anyone who advocates the former is suspected of supporting the latter. The very notion of democracy is becoming politicized.

The Brotherhood, the closest thing Egypt has to a majority party, is, unsurprisingly, a rather staunch advocate of majority rule. On this point, Morsy and other leading Brothers have straddled the fine line between democracy and demagoguery. For many Egyptians, Morsy's dramatic, chant-like chorus of "there is no power above the people" during a June 29 speech in Tahrir Square was a stirring ode to popular sovereignty. For others, it was a sign that the Brotherhood — having won 47 percent and 52 percent in parliamentary and presidential elections, respectively — felt it had the right to implement its vision, regardless of what anyone else had to say about it.

To continue reading this article, visit ForeignPolicy.com.

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