Sectarian violence threatens White House plans for democracy in Egypt

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The White House has cautiously condemned Sunday’s attacks on Egyptian Christians by Islamists and security forces, but critics say its policies have spurred the country’s slide toward Islamic rule.

President Barack Obama’s “legacy will be to have legitimized the Muslim Brotherhood,” partly because he underestimated the popular appeal of Islamic rule, said Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

“During the [1979] Islamic Revolution in Iran, there were nine months between Ayatollah Khomeini’s return and the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran,” which marked the rise of Islamic theocrats, said Rubin. “We’re nearing the nine month mark in Egypt and, as in Iran, things are starting to go south,” he added.

The Sunday attacks killed roughly 20 Coptic Christians, who were protesting the military government’s failure to counter attacks on Copts by mobs of Muslim fundamentalists. Christians comprise roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 85 million.

The Egyptian military government claims that Copts killed several soldiers, but Coptic leaders deny the claim.

“The President is deeply concerned about the violence in Egypt that has led to a tragic loss of life among demonstrators and security forces,” said a Monday statement from the White House.

“As the Egyptian people shape their future, the United States continues to believe that the rights of minorities — including Copts — must be respected, and that all people have the universal rights of peaceful protest and religious freedom,” said the White House. (RELATED: Christians fear Islamist pressure in Egypt)

In recent weeks, the U.S. government has met with leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood, despite repeated calls by the group’s leaders for Iranian-style theocracy in Egypt.

These days, the Egyptian brotherhood is dominated by many old-guard Islamists who seek a return of traditional Islamic rules. But the brotherhood also includes many younger Islamists who are trying to reconcile their all-encompassing Islamic divine law — dubbed Sharia — with modern technology, education, commerce and Western culture.

In Egypt, the brotherhood is engaged in a slow-motion struggle for power against the military, which ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Obama urged Mubarak’s departure, which took place amid widespread protests and riots, which were prompted by rising costs of food and by the economic turbulence.

The economy continues to worsen, partly because tourists are scared away by conflict, but also because the military has re-imposed socialist-style central direction of the economy, say economic observers. This decline could be lethal, partly because most of Egypt’s poor live on government-subsidized food.

“Until Egypt puts job creation above populist subsidies, the Egyptian economy is doomed,” said Rubin.

Brotherhood leaders say they don’t want to take over the country. But they are pressing for imminent elections to a parliament, and have formed alliances with relatively modern non-religious political groups, and with militant Islamists, dubbed Salafists. “We can overcome all of these trials with solidarity and national consensus … The people are waiting for elections and to have a new system,” Essam el-Erian, a brotherhood leader, told Time.

Experts disagree over over whether the brotherhood’s extensive organization and its Sharia platform will help it gain a majority of the parliament.

The Egyptian military is resisting elections, and is widely suspected by Egyptians and foreign observers of wanting to remain in power. Army officers have ruled the country — and much of the economy — since the departure of the British after World War II.

Egyptian democrats fear that Sunday’s killings will be used by the military to halt moves towards democracy. “I don’t think we’ll have elections at all,” Emad Gad, a Coptic politician told Time magazine. “I think that the army let the violence happen so that it could cancel the elections and remain in power.”

White House officials continue to push for elections, despite the riots and the apparent rise in Islamist power. The “tragic events should not stand in the way of timely elections and a continued transition to democracy that is peaceful, just and inclusive,” said the Monday statement.

But the White House has underestimated the Islamist faction, said Rubin. “Progressives fell all over themselves to downplay the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood … [and] dismissed concerns by proclaiming that they had interviewed Brotherhood activists and been assured that they would embrace democracy,” Rubin said. “Just as Khomeini once assured the West’s useful idiots that he had no interest in personal power, the Muslim Brotherhood simply exploited Western incredulity.”