Engaging with the Brotherhood

Egypt is where the most radical change in American foreign policy has occurred

Perhaps the most radical change in US foreign policy under President Obama has occurred here in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood, long shunned as a collection of dangerous Islamist extremists, is now the de facto object of American support. Not only that: Ultraconservative Salafist politicians, who make the Brotherhood seem like moderate pragmatists, are now regular visitors to the US Embassy and, on the theory that it is better to have them inside the tent than out, they are able to visit the United States to learn how things work in the land of Jeffersonian democracy.

Of course, the new American thinking goes, agreement will never be possible with these Salafis on women's rights, for example, but this does not mean that they cannot have a mutually beneficial relationship with the West or evolve. Every Salafi in Parliament is one less potential jihadist.

The turnabout is dramatic. The US consistently supported former President Hosni Mubarak, whose campaign against the Brotherhood was relentless. Prison for Brotherhood leaders was de rigueur. The Brotherhood occupied the space in American strategic thinking now taken by the Salafis radical Islamists with the difference that they were ostracised.

President Mohamed Morsi who was of course imprisoned under Mubarak and was elected as Egypt's first civilian leader in June has ousted top generals with whom Washington and Israel were comfortable and installed his own men. The new chief of staff, General Sedky Sobhi, while studying in the US in 2005, wrote that American policymakers had shown a "fundamental lack of understanding and communication" with the Arab world. Some $1.5 billion in mainly military US aid has continued to flow through this upheaval to Egypt.

Any prediction in Egypt today is hazardous. The nation at the heart of Arab society is in turbulent flux. Still, I would argue that the US has made the right choice; that this new policy of engagement with even extreme currents of political Islam in the Middle East is salutary; that the model should be extended; and that indeed the Obama administration had little choice. To keep doing the same thing when it does not work is one definition of madness.

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