Thu Jan 5, 2012, 12:43 PM
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As U.S. Explores Dialogue with Muslim Brotherhood, Israelis Urge a Tougher Line Against Islamists’ [View all]
By Tony Karon | @tonykaron | January 5, 2012
Unlike its predecessor, the Obama Administration has understood the limits on Washington’s ability to remake the Middle East to its own specifications. The corollary, of course, is that in a rapidly democratizing region, refusal to engage with political Islam will leave the U.S. increasingly isolated from the Arab mainstream. As a result, the Administration has begun holding high-level meetings with those it has traditionally shunned, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But whatever their diplomatic logic, such moves may carry a not insubstantial domestic political cost in an election season where the President’s rivals are keen to paint him as insufficiently supportive of Israel.
Election results in Egypt, Tunisia and even Morocco confirm the Islamists as the dominant political current within the newly empowered Arab public. The same trend has been clear in every Iraqi election since the ouster of Saddam Hussein and in the most recent Palestinian election, and there’s no reason to believe the outcome will be much different when and if elections are held in Libya and Syria. Political Islam is hardly Washington’s cup of tea, rooted in a view of society quite at odds with Western liberalism, and ready to challenge unwanted U.S. intervention in the Middle East, and to confront Israel over the Palestinians. But long gone is the Bush-era illusion that Arab democracy would produce regimes ready to befriend Israel and ally with Washington. And while the likes of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may castigate the Obama Administration for failing to prop up the Mubarak dictatorship, the Arab public has demonstrated over the past year that its democratic aspirations can no longer be kept in check by unelected strongmen, except at an unconscionable price in blood.
So the meeting of U.S. officials with Muslim Brotherhood leaders represents a pragmatic acknowledgement that the party represents the mainstream of public opinion in a country that has traditionally been a U.S. ally and which remains a beacon of influence throughout the Arab world. It also reflects an opportunity for both sides to start a long-suppressed conversation that could allow some rethinking of the relationship. After all, taking the reins of government, and with it responsibility for delivering a better life for all Egyptians amid a flailing economy, enforces a certain pragmatism in the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants relations with Western countries. And given the coming struggle for control of the political reins between the elected parliament — which will be led by the Brotherhood, and a junta of generals representing a military that has long been a U.S. client — Washington could yet play an important role in smoothing the transition to democracy and ensuring stability.
One source of U.S. anxiety over the Islamists’ election victory is the question of whether the Brotherhood would uphold Egypt’s 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel. Its electoral representative, the Freedom and Justice Party, undertook in its manifesto to uphold all of Egypt’s international agreements. But the movement’s deputy leader, Rashad al-Bayoumi, caused a stir over the New Year by suggesting that Egypt may choose to revise the treaty, and that the Egyptian public ought to be given the right to decide the matter — presumably through a referendum.
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