Mohamed Morsy’s presumed first place finish in the preliminary round of Egypt’s presidential election paves the way for the most substantial democratic victory for the Muslim Brotherhood, and the entire Islamist movement, since its founding in 1928. As the successor to ousted president Hosni Mubarak comes into slightly more focus, many are wondering how a Morsy victory would affect U.S.-Egypt relations.
Historically, Islamists in the Middle East have not always been peaceful actors. But when they have participated in the democratic process, they have either achieved modest results (as in Jordan, Morocco and Mubarak’s Egypt) or scored significant victories that elicited institutionalized rejection and repression.
In Sudan, during the 1980s and then Algeria in 1991, democratically elected Islamist governments were swiftly deposed by military coups. More recently, Hamas’ parliamentary success in 2006 was undermined by Fatah, Israel and the U.S., leading to division and civil war in Palestine.
After the Arab revolutions of 2011, however, the broad electoral success of Islamists is widely accepted as inevitable. Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement secured 40% of the seats in the constituent assembly, while Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist Nour Party together won over 70% of parliament. For once, these developments have been widely accepted by those countries’ military institutions as well as the United States.
In deference to the Muslim Brotherhood’s broad popular support, in 2011 Washington dropped a ban on its officials meeting with the group’s members. Since then, White House and State Department officials have met with Brotherhood leaders—including Morsy—at least half a dozen times.
Despite its denials of a change in policy, the Obama administration’s diplomatic engagement with the most powerful political force in Egypt is refreshing. It would be wise to maintain that strategy in the case of a Morsy presidency, because most of the Brotherhood’s stated positions are palatable, if not advantageous, to Washington’s strategic interests.
Notwithstanding Morsy’s inflammatory statements about Israel (the New York Times reports he once called Israelis “killers and vampires”), the Brotherhood has promised to respect the Camp David accords, the landmark peace deal brokered by the U.S. in 1979.
The Brotherhood also champions free trade, open markets, and foreign investment, suggesting that many of the neoliberal policies of the Mubarak era that benefited U.S. companies would continue.
A Brotherhood-led Egypt would continue to serve as a regional counterweight to Iran and Saudi Arabia, preserving a traditional element of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
On domestic issues, such as women’s rights and the protection of religious minorities, there is less common ground. The Brotherhood is opposed to a woman or Christian becoming president, for example, and its insistence on applying Sharia law creates justified concerns about the protection of individual liberties. Such issues are often unfortunately secondary on the U.S. foreign policy agenda and so unlikely to hamper cooperation.
For Washington, the only alternative to working with the Brotherhood at this point is supporting Ahmed Shafiq, Morsy’s presumed competitor in the runoff. A military man and Mubarak loyalist, Shafiq would likely depart little from the former regime’s dependence on the U.S. and submission to Washington’s strategic objectives. However, the inevitable popular backlash in Egypt against the election of a Mubarak insider would undermine Shafiq significantly and U.S. support for him would make the Obama Administration catastrophically unpopular.
Currently, supporting the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not only consistent with America’s stated value of democracy but also most likely to achieve U.S. interests in the region. Whether that is in the long-term interest of ordinary Egyptians remains to be seen.