At the foreign policy debate on Monday, it was clear that the tone of discussion on the new governments in the Middle East has changed.
“What we’re seeing,” Mitt Romney said in response to moderator Bob Schieffer’s first question on Libya, “is a pretty dramatic reversal of the kind of hopes we had for the region.” President Obama was quick to defend his decision to call for Mubarak to step down last year, but he hedged this support with conditions. Now that there is a democratically elected government in Egypt, he said, the next step is to “put significant pressure on them” to protect religious minorities, recognize the rights of women, and abide by their treaty with Israel (“That is a red line for us,” he said of protecting Israeli security). He tried to project confidence in the future of Egypt, but he conveyed the same wavering optimism voiced by Romney; the same feeling that we have been here before.
Islamist governments are now in power in Tunisia and Egypt, and the fundamental clash between a religious state and many democratic ideals has reared its ugly head in recent controversies over the constitutions in both countries. In Tunisia, the controversy is relatively small: a “complementarity clause” reminds the Tunisian people that the man and woman have “complementary roles” inside the home. The meaning is vague, and there’s a lot of conversation about whether it adds anything at all, but other ideas have been floated, like the creation of an Islamic Supreme Council, that arouse fears about the direction of the government and the governing an-Nahda party.
In Egypt, the controversy is much larger. The Constituent Assembly is split every which way over the draft constitution, and the liberal secularist forces have taken to simply boycotting any process designed to break the deadlock, like a meeting with President Morsi and the rest of the Constituent Assembly on Tuesday. The constitution has been rejected by women voters, by Coptic Christians, and by just about every political party except the Salafist party (the party of ultraconservative Muslims). The Salafists, a very important group in the government, refuse to budge on including “the principles of Islamic sharia are the main source of legislation in Egypt,” though they compromised earlier by allowing the addition of “the principles of.” They also want to qualify the terms on equality between the genders and ensure this equality remains in line with sharia (a problematic premise, of course). All of these vague qualifiers should signal alarm, as they have for Egyptian women and minorities.
I am confident the cyclical nature of history and the stubborn organizations of power in countries with troubled histories — mostly as a result of imperialism — are not, as the Republicans want us to think, a result of the “unraveling foreign policy” of Obama. But there are reasons to be disappointed that a movement that cost — and continues to cost — so many lives, and was heralded as the beginning of a new Middle East has created more of the same.
The most troublesome, of course, is that the United States has been an instrument of this historical loop. Rather than rejecting a constitution that only the ultraconservative Salafist party approves in Egypt, the United States has expressed support of it. After Obama’s vows to place pressure on Egypt to ensure gender equality and the protection of religious minorities, it’s hard to see why his administration would endorse a constitution reviled by just those groups for threatening to violate those principles.
Looking back at history, it is not surprising at all to see to see an American president speaking out of both sides of his mouth about the Middle East. We supported Egyptian efforts to topple Mubarak, but only because our plan to prop him up with billions of dollars in exchange for protecting American security and economic interests had soured. The Muslim Brotherhood, having been underground for decades, now seems to be learning a truth well-known by those in power in the Middle East. The U.S. will exchange its commitment to democratic ideals for a guaranteed protection of American security and economic interests. And that guarantee often rewards a hefty paycheck.
Hussein Agha and Robert Malley write a dire warning: “It’s a game of musical chairs. In Egypt, Salafis play the part once played by the Muslim Brotherhood; the Brotherhood plays the part once played by the Mubarak regime … How far off is the day when Salafis present themselves to the world as the preferable alternative to jihadists?”
American politicians’ tone has indeed changed on the Middle East, but only in public. Leaders voice their concerns over Islamist governments’ commitment to egalitarian ideals and stability in the region at presidential debates, but simultaneously engage with extreme strains of political Islam and express support of constitutions that defeat those ends. Another Obama term could prove itself in this area, but it looks doubtful now. That a Romney administration would call an end to this shameful American legacy is even less likely.
We should beware, though, because these policies have never worked to our benefit in the Middle East, and have fomented anti-American sentiment and allowed dangerous and extremist groups to seize power. They are, as the president likes to say, the same policies that got us into trouble in the first place.