Paul Pillar

Avoiding Extremism in Egypt (and Beyond)

Easy now—let's not get too wildly enthusiastic about the blow for democracy that has been struck in Egypt. The current regime is, after all, a military dictatorship. There will more to be said in the weeks and months ahead about the generals who are now running the show. Given that the generals themselves, despite the statements promising a democratic transition, probably do not know a lot at this point about exactly what they expect or even want to do with their power, don't count on good predictions along this line. And be wary of predictions that are foolishly made anyway.

More useful than any prognostication game is to think about what the United States needs to do—insofar as its policies toward Egypt can have an impact—to avoid screwing things up as the uncertain political scenario in Cairo plays out. And despite the adept hand that the Obama administration has shown so far, there is ample opportunity to screw things up. The single biggest mistake the United States could make if a democratic transition goes forward is to reject a substantial—or maybe even leading—role for political Islamists, as represented most conspicuously by the Muslim Brotherhood. There are many different ways and degrees in which the United States could do this short of a complete break in relations, such as a major reduction in U.S. aid as a sign of displeasure. The basic reason such rejection would be a big mistake is twofold. First, political Islam reflects a significant current of public opinion in Egypt, as it does elsewhere in the Middle East. It is part and parcel of popular sovereignty and democracy. It will not go away. Second, to the extent that this current of opinion does not have peaceful channels for political expression, the lack of such channels will support the extremist contention that violence is the only option and will add to the likelihood that violent methods will be used.

The United States has made similar mistakes in the past, which have involved rejecting Islamist victories in free elections. The stakes are even higher in Egypt, however, partly because of the added weight of events in this most populous Arab country. The stakes are also high because in any post-Mubarak democratic system the issues will be clearer than with, say, Hamas, where democratic choice has been complicated by the violence in the relationship between Hamas and Israel. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has been remarkably patient and persistent in its adherence to nonviolence in the face of being outlawed and subjected to other forms of repression by the regime. If even this posture is not good enough to warrant acceptance as a legitimate political player once that regime has been swept away, then the conclusion in the eyes of Egyptians and of Muslims generally will be clear: that the United States doesn't really believe what it says about democracy and instead is motivated primarily by hostility to Islam. And that will feed more violent opposition to the United States.

The connection between Egypt's recent past and international terrorism is instructive. While members of the Muslim Brotherhood were enduring what the regime was throwing at them, Islamic radicals thought they were fools to do so. The radicals, particularly in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya, launched a terrorist campaign aimed at destabilizing the Egyptian government. The regime used ruthless measures to crush the extremist groups in the mid-1990s. Having failed to defeat the near enemy—the regime in Cairo—some of the radicals turned to Osama bin Laden's doctrine of going after the far enemy: the United States. A leader of the EIJ, Ayman al-Zawahiri, joined his remaining forces with bin Laden's and is now the number two leader of al-Qaeda. In short, rejection of a role for political Islamists in Egypt contributed directly and significantly to the transnational terrorism that many consider the leading security threat to the United States.

Reducing the threat of terrorism is one of the leading U.S. interests that—unlike, say, keeping the Suez Canal open or not seeing someone start a war with Israel—is most capable of being affected by the events yet to unfold in Egypt, and by how the United States reacts to those events. The good news is that if the mistake of peremptory rejection of a political role for Islamists can be avoided, there will be less of a contradiction between different elements of counterterrorism than there has been with some regimes—including Mubarak's, in which there was a tension between the immediate interest in operational cooperation and the longer term interest in not suffering from guilt by association and becoming a target of some of the enmity directed against his regime. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamist terrorists are adversaries—intently so, as is common with adversaries who claim the same basis for legitimacy in pursuing different courses. There is every reason to believe that effective counterterrorist cooperation with the United States—without the underlying contradiction between short term and long term interests—would continue under a democratic Egyptian government in which the Muslim Brotherhood played a major role.