Strengthening America in Egypt

American Egyptian Relations
Protesters destroy an American flag pulled down from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, September 11, 2012. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

Many Egyptians believe the United States is out to get them. Yet at the same time, the United States is the primary supplier of the Egyptian military, and ties between the two armed forces are strong.

Samuel Tadros wrote an engaging history of post-Arab Spring Egypt for the Hoover Institute, entitled “The Follies of Democracy Promotion.”

In it he brings to task the sentiment of past administrations — Bush and Obama included — who sought to pressure Egypt to open up democratically.

Some critics might say it is the underlying relation with the military and the failure to push harder for democracy that makes the United States a popular target. Tadros is cynical.

Regardless, in his conclusion he hits at a very important but often overlooked feature of the bilateral relationship:

Beyond any specific policy disagreements between the two countries throughout the years, the weakness of the alliance stems from the failure of Washington to build a constituency for the United States in Egypt.

As anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories overtook the country, no one in Egypt was willing to stand for the United States, defending the importance of the alliance.

Engagement with Egyptian society should not be limited to Cairo or to the business community, but the United States should make an effort to reach wider spectrums of Egyptian society.

And he offers several rather practical steps:

The US embassy should offer a correction to every anti-American story appearing in the Egyptian media, and those who actively spread such stories and refuse to correct them should pay a price.

A journalist consistently spreading conspiracy theories about the United States should not get invited to the US embassy Fourth of July party and he should not receive a visa to go shopping in America.

Alhurra, the US-based satellite TV channel, should be revitalized to provide fact-based news for Egypt and the region as a whole.

Above all, President el-Sisi should give a major speech making the case for the US-Egyptian alliance, detailing what America has done to help Egypt and refuting anti-American conspiracy theories. If he is committed to the alliance and wants US economic and military aid, he should be required to make the case for America to his people.

America has been content to look the other way as its reputation is trashed, assured vital interests will be [and have been] protected. And Egypt is free to pursue its favored foreign policy, independent of the United States, if it chooses.

‘Hearts and minds’ only go so far in a climate of disinformation. And America must step up to the plate and deserve the good reputation it desires.

But Tadros’ suggestions are sensible. It is strange they have not been widely discussed before.


Two Wings of the Brotherhood

Rabaa Red and YellowThe text has 75 footnotes. Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute has dutifully followed the internal power struggle consuming the Muslim Brotherhood since the fall of Morsi. It is a long read, but he ties the strands together in a compelling narrative.

The thrust is that there are two competing wings, an old guard that wants to protect the principle of peacefulness — if only to maintain a longstanding international reputation. Beneath their leadership are the youth bent on revenge for the sufferings of Rabaa and continued demonstrations.

The latter, he writes, have been imbued with a heavy dose of ‘revolutionary Salafism’, pushing conflict with the regime. And with so many leaders imprisoned, it is very difficult to maintain the traditional system of cohesiveness and obedience. The split has not taken place, but it is brewing.

So here is Tadros’ summary of the two sides. It very important to keep in mind when listening to these talking points repeated in media discourse about Egypt:

At the heart of the Brotherhood crisis sit two competing visions. Neither side can claim a coherent strategy. The old guard believes that the Egyptian regime should be given a chance to implode on its own.

In this view, a combination of economic decline, security failure, and growing discontent will lead either to self-destruction, an internal coup, or Western intervention by pressuring for reconciliation.58 To maintain momentum, demonstrations need to continue even if they do not produce immediate results.

Simultaneously, the Brotherhood needs to keep the pressure on the West by warning that the fate of Iraq and Syria awaits Egypt if they don’t move. By maintaining a semblance of non-violence, the Brotherhood can continue to claim that it is the moderate alternative to the Islamic State. It is betting on time and changing regional dynamics, especially a rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia under King Salman.59

On the opposite side, the new leadership, and behind it the Brotherhood’s rank and file, believes that only by bleeding the regime can it be brought to its knees. 

A regional deal is precisely what they fear as it would mean that all their sacrifices would have been in vain and their tormentors would not be punished. Their war with the regime is no longer about Morsi and the coup; in fact, Sisi’s removal would solve nothing for them. Instead, the struggle is an ideological one between Islam and apostasy, between right and wrong, between them and the “Army of Camp David” and its “Zionist masters.” Such a struggle stems from a worldview that allows no compromise.

From well informed research, Tadros puts forward speculation that is well fitting within the reputation of the Brotherhood. Perhaps the leadership is ok with this division.

Earlier in his text he wrote of the discourse during the sit-in at Rabaa:

The mixing of Islamists had an effect on the speeches. Speakers, in English, portrayed the struggle as one of democracy against a coup while others, in Arabic, cast the struggle in the language of jihad. This was not merely the Brotherhood’s famous two discourses in two languages, but the result of genuine confusion and disorientation.

In order to maintain the organization of the Brotherhood, but perhaps also in strategy, they tried to hold the two wings together:

Besides, the leadership could have it both ways. Officially, the Brotherhood would not claim violent acts and maintain its pledge to nonviolence; in reality, the special units would bleed the regime to death. The new slogan, “All that is below bullets is peacefulness,” replaced the old slogan, “Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets.”

After all, as a Brotherhood member lamented, “our peacefulness is not stronger than bullets.”38 Allowing the special units to conduct these attacks would hurt the regime without committing the whole group to the path of violence. 39 The calculation would prove mistaken as violence spiraled out of control.

But does he know this was a calculation? It is fitting and logical, but toward the conclusion where he speculates, ‘The Brotherhood may still hope to have it both ways,’ he provides evidence that seems more like an organization in confusion:

Before the clash, the Brotherhood’s statement endorsing jihad in Arabic on January 27 was removed from its website; and the group issued a statement three days later, in English, denouncing violence.63

On May 17, Mohamed Montaser called for a revolution to cut heads. Following his statement committing to the revolutionary path on May 28, he seemed to backtrack on June 25 by calling on the Brotherhood youth to be careful not to slip into a cycle of violence.64

His shift was in response to the horror of the Revolutionary Punishment’s assassination of a civilian which it accused of cooperating with the regime,65 and a realization that such acts would tie the Brotherhood to violence and end any prospect of the Brotherhood regaining public support.

The shift was short-lived, however. Following the regime’s liquidation of nine Brotherhood leaders on July 1, Montaser released a statement that declared “the Muslim Brotherhood affirms that the assassination of its leaders is a turning point that has ramifications and by which the criminal, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, founded a new phase in which there cannot be control on the anger of the oppressed segments that will not accept to die in their homes and between their families.”66

An organization in confusion also fits with Tadros’ thesis. But to what degree is Brotherhood leadership — to the extent it exists — engaging in conscious Machiavellian politics?

Other analysts follow the same footnoted evidence and conclude that the youth can no longer be controlled by a leadership that remains peaceful and moderate. Tadros also writes that the Brotherhood pyramid has been inverted, with the base dragging leaders along. But advocates of ‘reconciliation’ who believe that inclusion of Brotherhood-style political Islam is necessary for the stability of Egypt seem to grab this fact in hope that the situation can be redeemed. They lament the ‘coup’ and the failure not only of the Arab Spring, but also of their analysis of integration. Consider this section of a long essay by Marc Lynch, compellingly defending the foreign policy of President Obama:

Obama came to office intending to defeat al Qaeda with a lighter footprint, through drone strikes, partnerships with local allies, and the cultivation of more moderate Islamist groups. He understood the nuances of intra-Islamist politics and seized the opportunity to divide the mainstream of Islamism from al Qaeda and stop the spiral toward a clash of civilizations.

Obama’s willingness to work with the Muslim Brotherhood following Mubarak’s fall was a departure from decades of U.S. policy and the strongest signal Obama ever sent that the United States believes in democracy regardless of who wins. By early 2012, Obama’s policies on Islamism were proving successful.

Lynch then blames the coup and anti-Brotherhood Gulf propaganda as being the primary catalysts of current Islamist violence. Surely there is a contributing effect.

But Brotherhood literature has long imbued adherents with the worldview of ‘a clash of civilizations’ — just not now. And as Tadros’ essay details, even in 2012 the Brotherhood’s primary allies were Salafis, whose strident ideology is now convincing the ideologically vacuous Brotherhood that the priority of pragmatism — and with it the adoption of peacefulness — was a wrongheaded betrayal of the principle of jihad, to which they paid only lip service.

Lynch’s analysis is astute, but does he understand the nature of the Brotherhood? Or only of part of it, the part he hopes can be peacefully integrated into the world system providing an escape from instability, autocracy, and the ever present call for the US to re-intervene militarily. Who would not want such an outcome, and the Brotherhood seemed to promise it.

Only as time is now telling, as Tadros seems to suggest, that only part of the Brotherhood promised it. Let there be all sympathy for the Brotherhood in their trial. They are under tremendous pressure. It is amazing how their organization is still holding together, and a testament to their belief and commitment.

But it is only when a man is tested that his true colors show. And for a very large section of the Brotherhood, they witness that peacefulness was a means to an end. Under pressure, they strike back. Very natural, of course. But also very ugly. Just watch their satellite programming.

Have they suffered human rights abuses? Most certainly. Have they been cheated? Of course. At the least they were outmaneuvered.

But all their appeals in English lose sympathy when the Arabic is read. But is this their internal decision and strategy, or the flailings of an organization in chaos? Even after reading Tadros, I’m not sure. Even he is cautious between deductions and assertions.

Do the talking points meet in a coherent conspiracy-theory whole? As one wing warns of state collapse and a Syria scenario, is the other wing working to make the threat real?

You be the judge, but let 75 footnotes guide you along the way.

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Brotherhood’s Call for Retribution is ‘Religious Violence’

Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, a Salafi signatory of Egypt Call.
Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, a Salafi signatory of Egypt Call.

A leading American academic has denounced the latest Muslim declaration against elected Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a call for ‘religious violence’.

Samuel Tadros of Hudson Institute in Washington DC told Lapido that ‘Egypt Call’, a 13-point document published last week by 159 Muslim scholars from 35 nations, and endorsed by the Brotherhood, provided ‘Islamic justification’ for the fight against Sisi.

‘This document is as direct a call for violence as you may ever get,’ Tadros said. ‘This is a religious verdict on the regime as unbelievers.’

As President Sisi visited Germany and secured an eight-billion-Euro energy deal, two policemen were shot dead near the Giza pyramids.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood sponsored protests in Berlin. ‘Tell Merkel to stand up for democracy and human rights in Egypt,’ tweeted Ikhwanweb, their official English account.

Both activities find justification in the new document which reinforces already grave questions about whether the Muslim Brotherhood is behind violence in Egypt.


The text of Egypt Call declares, ‘It is a religious obligation to resist the regime, working to finish it off through all legitimate means.’

Points 11 and 12 recognize the international struggle, condemning nations that have stood with Sisi, while praising governments, politicians, human rights organizations, and others who have criticized him. Point 13 specifically mentions civil disobedience.

But point 4 makes it personal. Mentioning specifically rulers, judges, policemen, soldiers, muftis, media, and politicians, it says: ‘Retribution against them is necessary.’

Press conference in Istanbul for Egypt Call. Ghoneim is back row, 5th from left.
Press conference in Istanbul for Egypt Call. Ghoneim (mentioned below) is back row, 5th from left.

The sharia views them as killers, it says, and they deserve the judgment of those who kill. But the text also insists – without specificity – that this must be according to legitimate methods.

So: What is legitimate?


Jihad as a concept can be viewed along a spectrum from the struggle to submit to God, to the fight to submit the world to him.

The Brotherhood has long perfected the art of ambiguity. In January, it called on followers to prepare for a ‘relentless jihad.’

It has issued statements that condemn ongoing violence, but also praised previous Brotherhood militancy.

For Tadros, the ambiguity is now gone.

He sees in Egypt Call the concept of ‘loyalty and disavowal’, often interpreted in the modern world by jihadis as the rejection of all who do not fit their definitions of sharia.

The doctrine requires viewing those disavowed as non-Muslims, or unbelievers.

Tadros recognizes, however, that the word ‘unbeliever’ is not found in Egypt Call. Rather, in detailing how the Sisi regime has fought against Islam, allied with enemy Zionism, and killed and imprisoned thousands of innocents, it lets readers make this judgment for themselves.

Over 500,000 have indicated their support on the official website.

According to Joas Wagemakers, a prolific writer on political Islam and lecturer at Radboud University in the Netherlands, ‘loyalty and disavowal’ has some Quranic inference.

But it was developed by the early Kharijite movement that rebelled against the caliphate.

Wagemakers, in his chapter in editor Roel Maijer’s Global Salafism, says Sunni Islam rejected the concept until ibn Taymiyya resurrected it in the fourteenth century. Modern-day extremists use it to justify rebellion against a Muslim ruler.

Point 2 of Egypt Call references one of the principle Quranic verses underpinning the doctrine.

But it does not specifically use the terminology, nor label the regime as non-Muslim.

Tadros attributes this to internal philosophical disputes on technical points about legitimate rebellion. But these religious scholars, he says, do not see themselves as offering points on strategy.

According to the research of Michael Cook, a professor at Princeton University and author of Forbidding Wrong in Islam, majority scholarly Sunni opinion is against the idea of opposing even an oppressive ruler.

Most say it will result in more harm than good, even if legitimate.

But the heritage of sharia includes voices which advocate a quiet rebuke, and others who advocate outright militancy. Where does the Brotherhood fall?

Some ask whether retribution is to come from formal judicial tribunals after they restore Morsi. A recent report from the semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights said 1,250 Muslim Brotherhood members had been killed in the eighteen months after Morsi’s overthrow.

Others question whether they have advocated the kind of assassinations seen at Giza. The same report said seven hundred security forces had been killed during the same time period.


Egypt Call does not provide details, but a brief look at the signatories offers perspective. Tadros has identified several of them from previous research he did into Egyptian Islamism.

While in Germany the Brotherhood tweeted about democracy and human rights, one of the signatories Said Abdel Azeem, an Egyptian Salafi leader denounced democracy on YouTube as ‘an idol that people worship apart from God,’ and said that it permits all sorts of excess in personal freedoms. The film has received more than 28,000 views.

Azeem has taken a stand against jihadis who kill Muslims they deem apostates, but another signatory, Atiya Adlan, adheres to the Sorouri strand of Salafism that adopts the concept of ‘loyalty and disavowal’, declaring the ruler who does not govern by sharia to be an unbeliever.

And signatory Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, a pro-Brotherhood Salafi leader, has previously hailed the jihad of Osama bin Laden.

More acutely applicable to the Egyptian struggle, he called for the killing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and praised the vengeance taken against Egyptian police.

Though not a signatory, Wagdy Ghoneim spoke at the press conference in Turkey that introduced Egypt Call.

‘The military regime headed by the infidel and apostate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is fighting Islam and religion,’ he said. ‘He led a coup against Morsi because Morsi desired to bring back the Islamic caliphate.’

Ghoneim has called for the killing of pro-Sisi journalists. When the Islamic State beheaded Copts in Libya, whom he called ‘Crusaders’, Ghoneim had no condemnation but launched a diatribe against the Coptic Church.

At a popular level, the official Facebook page of the Brotherhood’s political party in Maadi, Cairo, shared video of ‘revolutionaries’ firebombing an empty train.

None of this is proof that the Brotherhood is behind the violence in Egypt. But it chips further away at the veneer of ambiguity, even as they cling to it.

The editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website did not respond to a request for clarification.

This article was originally published at Lapido Media.

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Islamism or Jihadism: A False Choice

Fadel Soliman
Fadel Soliman

In the year 1321 Muslim mobs, with tacit allowance from the Mamluk Sultan, destroyed 60 churches in Egypt and openly attacked Copts on the roads and in their homes. Incitement included accusations Christians supported the invading Mongols in their ‘coup’ attempt against the state.

According to UK-based Fadel Soliman, these days may soon return. Coptic support for President Sisi and his coup against the democratically elected Islamist presidency of Mohamed Morsi has resulted in a ‘poisoned atmosphere’ between religious adherents.

‘I am so worried about the future of Egypt,’ said Soliman, ‘especially about the reactions of Muslims toward you.’

Soliman issued this comparison in the context of a larger argument about restoring hope to Muslim youth who own the dream of ruling by sharia. Too many, he laments, are attracted by the success of the so-called Islamic State following the ‘betrayal’ of the democratic dawn.

‘Either give the way to Muslim youth to try to reach their dreams through peaceful means,’ he told Lapido Media, ‘or they will definitely seek violent means. This is normal, this was expected to happen.’

Soliman is the Egyptian founder and director of Bridges Foundation, a UK-based NGO that aims to overcome misconceptions about Islam. His work has been praised by diverse figures such as Representative Michael Doyle of Pennsylvania and the liberal satirist Bassem Youssef of Egypt. He has consistently condemned terrorism and appealed to the Islamic State for the return of Alan Henning, later beheaded.

He is also an Islamist, arguing sharia law supports and enhances the principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He wishes justice for Egypt, to which he has not returned since the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa where he witnessed sixteen of his students killed.


But the crucial question is – if his argument is correct will frustrated Islamists flock to a jihadist vision? And similarly, should policymakers encourage ‘moderate’ Islamists as a counterweight to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State?

The argument is very popular in academic circles, informing much of the enthusiasm of the initial Arab Spring. Khalil al-Anani of Georgetown University in Washington DC, writing in Foreign Affairs, speaks for many in his worry about a return to authoritarianism in Egypt.

‘Through its clampdown on political dissent, Cairo has created a fertile ground for ISIS and groups like it,’ he wrote,‘with the potential to recruit young people, Islamists, and moderates alike.’

Indeed, most Muslims in Egypt are religiously conservative. The 2013 Pew survey showed 74% want sharia to be the law of the land, with 56% believing Egypt’s current legal system is deficient. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties captured nearly three-quarters of the parliament in the 2012 elections. It would appear these numbers represent those are ripe for radicalisation.

But Soliman’s appraisal of Egyptian politics fails to account for the millions of Muslims and Christians who rejected the presidency of Morsi. Coup or not, the subsequent ‘yes’ votes for the constitution and Sisi’s presidency each exceeded the 13 million Morsi won in 2012.

These numbers do not negate the conviction of Islamists that they have been cheated out of gains fairly won. Their grievances have been buttressed by the 632 people killed at Rabaa, according to Egypt’s semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights. A minimum of 6,400 people have been detained for ‘rioting’, according to the Ministry of the Interior.


But the assumption these frustrations will drive Islamists to violence is simply a form of bigotry, according to Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.

‘I disagree with this line of argument,’ he said. ‘It is shallow and insulting to Muslims. It is the bigotry of low expectations.’

Where Soliman sees the path to violence as normal—despite his firm rejection—Tadros sees responsibility.

‘Violence is a choice,’ he said. ‘It is not an inevitable one. Just as some have chosen the path of terrorism, there are millions of men and women who have chosen not to become terrorists, not to kill their enemies.’

Estimates of Egyptians fighting in Syria and Iraq range between 5,000 and 8,000. Islamist movement expert Ahmed Ban of the Nile Center for Strategic Studies believes this makes up 20-30% of their fighting force.

These are significant numbers. But according to two recent polls, only three to four percent of Egyptians view the Islamic State in positive terms. Viewed in light of a population of 90 million, small percentages cause considerable worry. But Egyptians, including the mass of Islamists, are not rushing headlong into jihadism.

Soliman says that every time he criticizes the Islamic State his Facebook and Twitter feeds light up in protest.

But Khaled Dawoud of Egypt’s Constitution Party, writing for the Atlantic Council, says the majority of Egyptians in Syria and Iraq travelled there during the presidency of Morsi. It was not the failure of Islamism that boosted jihadism, but its success.

Egypt has instituted travel restrictions to Turkey to prevent the further flow of citizens to the Islamic State. Terrorism continues in the restless Sinai where the Islamic State has formed a local chapter. The threat is real.

Prioritising values

But even peaceful Islamists have a distinct illiberal agenda, writes Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in his acclaimed book Temptations of Power. The premise that democracy would moderate them did not prove true in Egypt. In an excerpt from the Atlantic he describes the conflict this makes for observers, but Egyptians bear the greater struggle.

‘The ensuing—and increasingly charged—debate over the role of religion in public life put Western analysts and policymakers in the uncomfortable position of having to prioritise some values they hold dear over others,’ he wrote.

In the ongoing debate about how to include Islamists in the political order, foreign governments and Egyptians will set their agenda according to particular interests and principles.

But the implicit threat of jihadism should not be given a place of priority. It is neither sufficiently true nor morally honorable.

This article was originally published at Lapido Media.