I’m back in Egypt six months after my brief foray into Sinai in February and a year and a half since my last grand tour of this remarkable country. This is a good time to visit. There are no crowds at the sights. Red Sea resorts are half-empty and ridiculously cheap. It is still rather hot, but dry and breezy, and snorkeling is the best in the world. It is also very safe: you are many times more likely to die a violent death by staying a day in a major American city than if you were to stay in Egypt an entire year.
Egypt’s economy in general, and its tourist industry in particular, have suffered major losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts from last April 2020, the economic growth rate was expected to fall to 2 percent in 2020 and pick up to just under 3 percent in 2021, subject to the post-pandemic global economic recovery, but now it is likely that there will be no growth this year. In the short term, economic policy is focused on mitigating the impact of the pandemic, with fiscal conditions worsening, although market-oriented reforms will be revived as part of a renewed IMF program. According to The Economist, domestic demand and foreign inflows have taken a hit resulting in hardly any growth in 2020/21, but will recover to about 5 percent thereafter.
It is remarkable that economic downturn has not resulted in rising social and political tensions. On the political front, somewhat surprisingly, the score is not much different than what I reported in February 2019: Egypt is stable, firmly ruled by a generally benevolent autocrat. Recent constitutional changes allow the president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to rule until 2030. There is no doubt that he intends to do so, and at this time there are no forces on the horizon which appear capable of challenging him.
Paradoxically, Egypt’s current stability is the result of a sustained, homegrown effort to neutralize and counter destabilizing influences from abroad, notably from the United States.
In the final months of his first term, President George W. Bush announced that establishing peace and democracy throughout the greater Middle East was a key objective of U.S. policy in the region. “Some who call themselves ‘realists’ question whether the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be any concern of ours,” he declared. “If that region grows in democracy and prosperity and hope, the terrorist movement will lose its sponsors, lose its recruits, and lose the festering grievances that keep terrorists in business.”
Bush’s reasoning, and even more disastrously so that of his successors in the Obama White House, displayed two recurrent flaws. The first was the confusion about the character of Islam, and the delusional misunderstanding of all political forces based on its tenets. The second was an explicit rejection of the realist paradigm in favor of “democratization,” which, even if attainable, would only benefit various types of committed jihadists. Egypt provided a clear case study.
Hosni Mubarak, old and inert, was swept from power in early 2011 by the misnamed Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood—with the late unlamented Mohamed Morsi at its helm—came to power a year later, after the first democratic election in Egypt’s history. The rhetoric and tools of “democracy” were adroitly used by the Brotherhood in accordance with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s memorable quip that “democracy is a train: you can get off when you reach your destination.”
The Brotherhood regime immediately tried to turn Egypt into an Islamic Republic. Draconian edicts placing Morsi above the law and a Sharia-based new constitution were rammed through the legislature. It abolished the equality of men and women as well as religious equality, which would have turned Egypt’s Christians, who make up at least 12 percent of the population, into second-class citizens.
Every step of the way, President Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton facilitated the Brotherhood’s rise and its subsequent attempts to Islamize Egypt, on the grounds that it had come to power by democratic means. Under the same logic, Hitler’s regime should have been deemed legal and legitimate even after the Enabling Act. In fact, the support of Obama and Clinton for the Brotherhood and its regional subsidiaries was nothing short of a scandal. Even when 2 million people demonstrated in Cairo and other cities against the Morsi regime in June 2013, Washington went out of its way to restrain the military and prevent its intervention.
The officers led by General (now President) Abdel Fatal al-Sisi knew better, however. They defied the U.S. and acted because they cherished no illusions about the Brotherhood’s objectives. Sisi and the generals knew that even before Mubarak’s fall the primary opposition to autocracy came not from pro-Western reformers, but from the heirs of Hassan al-Banna who want the revealed True Faith to be the only law of the land. They also understood that the Egyptian state is a complex, somewhat ramshackle institution in which divergent interests are mediated and reconciled by formal mechanisms and (more importantly) informal means, and not an object of heavy-handed Islamist experimentation which excluded many key stakeholders.
The quest for a “moderate” variety of the Muslim Brotherhood is as absurd as the hunt for the unicorn, but it is certain to resume if Joe Biden wins in November. During the Cold War, Washington routinely pandered to various Islamists as a means of weakening secular Arab nationalist regimes, which was supposed to counter the Nasserist pan-Arab nationalism. As my friend Leon Hadar once noted, all of that may have made some sense during the Cold War but not at this stage. The multiculturalist belief in Islam’s essentially benign character globally and in the benefits of open-ended Muslim immigration at home is the madness of which the Democratic Party can no longer be cured.
On the central issue of changing the world in their own image, American leftists fear jihad less than they detest those who do not subscribe to their grand design. The Democrats’ proposed and implied policies reflect both an impressive degree of inaptitude and an ideologically preordained positive attitude toward aggressive Islamism. Both are potentially detrimental to U.S. interests.
Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.