The great 19th-century satirist Ambrose Bierce defined a revolution as “an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment.” He would understand events in Egypt very well.
In the signature revolution of the Arab Spring, the country turned its back on a secular dictatorship only to fall into the arms of what looks like a budding Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship. Meet the new pharaoh, same as the old pharaoh. Except Egypt's old form of misgovernment may soon look progressive by comparison.
Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi's decree neutering the judiciary is the latest act in his steady consolidation of power. While Morsi assiduously builds a dictatorship, the Obama administration just as assiduously tells itself bedtime stories. It's a perfect division of labor — he goes about his empire-building with a clear-eyed realism; we consider it through a gauzy lens of delusion.
Since the end of Hosni Mubarak, the air has been thick with descriptions of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi as moderates. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the Muslim Brotherhood “largely secular.”
Unfortunately, the Brotherhood's credo is: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way.” Morsi summarized his program during the campaign as “the sharia, then the sharia, and finally the sharia.”
After Mubarak's fall, we fooled ourselves about the level of support for the Brotherhood. We fooled ourselves about the Brotherhood abiding by its promise not to run for the presidency. We fooled ourselves about what a Morsi victory would mean for democracy. Why stop fooling ourselves now?
Morsi staged his latest power grab on Thanksgiving Day in the immediate aftermath of working with Obama to get a cease-fire in hostilities between Hamas (a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot) and Israel. A New York Times piece reported that in his talks with Morsi, “Mr. Obama felt they were making a connection.” How sweet.
“He was impressed with the Egyptian leader's pragmatic confidence.” And who can resist the lure of pragmatic confidence?
“He sensed,” the paper continued, in a gushing tone, “an engineer's precision with surprisingly little ideology.”
This is the most embarrassing man-crush misjudgment of a noxious foreign leader since George W. Bush claimed to have peered into Vladimir Putin's soul.
Obama famously disdained Mitt Romney. But the devotee of an Islamist organization about to stage a self-coup? Now, that's a man he can work with.
The business about an engineer's precision is priceless. What did the president expect? Morsi to try to convert him to Islam and harangue him about Malia and Sasha not wearing headscarves?
Morsi didn't get where he is today without rationally calculating his interests. He probably has many crisply precise conversations every day; that doesn't make his ultimate goal any less unreasonable.
A more personal fantasy
The administration's reaction to Morsi's decree has been, “Well, golly, we hope everyone can talk things through.” In its mealy mouthed noncondemnations, the Obama administration does no favors to the real moderates in the streets of Egypt pushing to get Morsi to back down.
But delusion is hard to give up. We always want to believe that other people are just like us and have, at bottom, the same practical concerns. It's simply not true of fanatics.
Obama is subject to a more personal fantasy, which is the belief that he is uniquely suited to convince people hostile to us that we want to be their friends. This might make for nice phone calls, but it won't change the convictions of a Mohamed Morsi.
If our leverage in Egypt is limited, we should still be using every bit of it to resist Morsi's power grab. The first step is to let go of delusions — and perhaps read more Ambrose Bierce.
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