Morsi, Obama, and the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

Article excerpt

Byline: Fouad Ajami

"I don't think that we consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," President Obama said, on Sept. 12, of the tangled relationship with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. "They're a new government that is trying to find its way," and there would be some "rocky times" ahead.

The day before, crowds had scaled the wall of the American Embassy in Cairo, burning the Stars and Stripes in protest against the video, Innocence of Muslims, that had triggered protests in 20 Muslim nations. No diplomats were killed in Egypt, as they were next door in Benghazi. But an American president obsessed with his election campaign, sure that the foreign world could be held at bay, was reminded of the hazards of imperial power in a fractured Islamic world ever ready for an anti-American riot.

"That depends on your definition of ally," the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told The New York Times, days later, on the eve of a visit to the United Nations General Assembly meeting. The Americans had been unhappy with the tepid response of Morsi to the riots. He had been passionate about the video, deeply offended by it, but had been slow to condemn the protests. "We took our time," he said, "but in the end acted decisively."

He put the Americans on notice, giving them a preview of the difficulties of dealing with a "democratic" government unlikely to show American authorities excessive deference. The "soft Islamists" had come to power, and Washington had to adjust to life after the autocrats.

The harvest of the Arab Spring has brought forth a new breed of Islamists. Washington neither gave birth to them, nor has it been capable of thwarting their rise to power. The charge that the distant power had pushed Hosni Mubarak under the bus is tendentious and silly. A hurricane swept the autocrats out of power. Their rule rested on fear, and suddenly, fear was broken.

The Tunisians were done with the mafialike reign of "the family," as the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was called. Egypt was through with Mubarak; it had tolerated him for three long decades, and now it wanted more for itself than a drab dictatorship of an aging pharaoh. There had not been gifted storm trackers among the Americans, people who could read and anticipate the gathering tempest. This new president--Egypt's first democratically elected one--has come out of that great wind that came upon the Arabs. He is not eager to please the powers in Washington, paymasters who had been giving aid to Cairo since the mid-1970s.

"Successive American administrations," he told The New York Times, "essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region." There was a powerful truth in this remark: the Pax Americana had befriended and financed the dreaded autocrats, and those cunning rulers had displaced the wrath of their people onto the United States.

We had "allies" in the saddle, in those impenetrable Arab lands, but we could never crack the code of these regimes, nor truly come to terms with the manner they feigned friendship with us as they fed a culture of anti-American incitement. That "American Raj" in Cairo had given us Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohamed Atta. No tears need be shed for the age of the dictators.

Doubtless, it will be hard dealing with Morsi, a faithful product of the Muslim Brotherhood, but we should not be nostalgic for the reign of Hosni Mubarak, the pasha on the Nile. He had been treacherous in his own way.

For America, the irony of the rise of Mohamed Morsi is that this colorless functionary of the Muslim Brotherhood is the first Egyptian ruler steeped in American ways. His doctorate in engineering comes from the University of Southern California, which he earned in 1982. A village boy from the impoverished delta, he had made his way to the United States, courtesy of a government scholarship. …