(June 18, 2019 / JNS) His death, like much of his life, was in service to the Islamist cause he championed. By dropping dead in a courtroom where he was caged and silenced, Mohammed Morsi served to bring attention to the dictatorial nature of the Egypt’s military government. The man who sought to make the world’s most populous Arab country into line with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood was lionized in his New York Times obituary as “Egypt’s First Democratically Elected President.”
That accurate, but still misleading, headline also should remind us that Morsi’s brief reign over Egypt was in no small measure the product of the Obama administration’s disastrous reaction to the Arab Spring protests. Rather than Morsi’s passing being the news hook for a new spate of stories excoriating the military regime that overthrew and jailed him, it ought instead to cause Americans to ponder whether their current and future leaders will be smart enough to learn the lessons of that particular act of colossal arrogance and folly.
In the spring of 2011, a series of protests broke out across the Arab world against the authoritarian and theocratic governments that govern every nation in the region except for democratic Israel. However, what followed was not—as some Western sympathizers had hoped—a movement aimed at overthrowing tyrannies and replacing them with genuine democracies. Violence and rebellions that sought to replace old tyrannies with Islamist ones followed. Genuine democrats were few and far between.
Egypt, whose importance is based on its size, population and strategic significance, illustrated this problem, as the old corrupt military regime led by Hosni Mubarak found itself under siege.
Many in the West welcomed the Arab Spring as a chance for the Muslim and Arab world to embrace the cause of freedom , much in the same way that the administration of President George W. Bush had naively thought that the toppling of Saddam Hussein might lead to democracy in Iraq. President Barack Obama was particularly taken with the notion that this was an opportunity for the United States to shed its image in the Arab world as an imperialist force and a friend of Israel.
A wiser man than he would have perceived the dangers inherent in meddling in such a complex environment, where forces supporting the kinds of democratic changes Americans wanted lacked numbers and power. But that didn’t stop the president from helping to undermine Mubarak. While the United States didn’t orchestrate what happened in Cairo, as the source of billions of aid that poured into its government, it still played an outsized role in the political ferment.
Obama sought to ease Mubarak out of power and then pushed for elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organized political party in the country. Washington also warned the military not to interfere with the vote or to prevent the Islamist theocratic group from taking power.
The result was the election of a Brotherhood government in 2012 led by Morsi. Obama and much of the mainstream press consistently sought to portray his regime as legitimate. But while the Brotherhood may have been elected democratically, they soon made clear that they had no intention of ever allowing the Egyptian people to vote them out. Morsi sought to assume dictatorial powers, and the prospect of Egypt becoming a Sunni version of the Islamist theocracy that transformed Iran into the dark tyranny and threat to the region soon became obvious.
That was made plain when Morsi resorted to the kind of anti-Semitic rhetoric so common to Iran. As Forbes’ Richard Behar first reported, Morsi said that Jews were “apes and pigs,” and repeated these slurs even when confronted by a visiting group of U.S. senators. It took several days for mainstream media outlets like The New York Times to report it or for the administration to respond to it.
But while the Obama administration still thought of the Brotherhood as a partner, the Egyptian people understood the peril they faced and again took to the streets in even larger numbers than when they protested Mubarak. While America dithered, the Egyptian army finally ignored the threats from Washington demanding their inaction and stepped in to overthrow Morsi in what was probably history’s most popular military coup.
Gen. Abdul Fattah El-Sisi assumed the role of president and repressed the Brotherhood and any other possible source of dissension. Egypt is now a more brutal tyranny that it was under the more complacent Mubarak.
The purpose of retelling this dismal chapter of U.S. diplomatic history is not just to recall Obama’s foolishness, but because it needs to serve as a warning to U.S. President Donald Trump and his successors.
As much as Americans of all political stripes harbor hopes that Western democracy can find a foothold in the Muslim and Arab worlds, American governments must cleave to reality and avoid magical thinking in which liberal democracy is viewed as a genuine option for these countries. The only choices available to the West are to back unattractive dictatorial regimes like that of El-Sisi or to watch as the Middle East is devoured by a still potent Islamist movement led by the Brotherhood.
Tolerating and even aiding El-Sisi isn’t an attractive option, but it’s the only rational one. Trump deserves credit for realism rather than the bashing he gets from those who think the United States should treat El-Sisi the way Obama undercut Mubarak.
Just as important, the willingness of some to rationalize groups like the Brotherhood or to imagine their counterparts currently running Tehran should be seen as potential partners is a fallacy that threatens to undermine efforts to stop these forces from gaining further power.
Morsi is not a heroic martyr to be mourned. He was merely a failed tyrant and a potent threat to both the West and the Middle East. His brief hold on power is also an object lesson to Americans and the media “echo chamber” that supported Obama’s poor choices of the potentially terrible price to be paid for such misjudgments.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.