Morsi, Obama, and the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

UN General Assembly
The Egyptian and American leaders addressed the United Nations last week. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP-Getty Images (left); Brendan Smialowski / AFP-Getty Images

"I don't think that we consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," President Obama said, on Sept. 12, of the tangled relationship with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. "They're a new government that is trying to find its way," and there would be some "rocky times" ahead.

The day before, crowds had scaled the wall of the American Embassy in Cairo, burning the Stars and Stripes in protest against the video, Innocence of Muslims, that had triggered protests in 20 Muslim nations. No diplomats were killed in Egypt, as they were next door in Benghazi. But an American president obsessed with his election campaign, sure that the foreign world could be held at bay, was reminded of the hazards of imperial power in a fractured Islamic world ever ready for an anti-American riot.

"That depends on your definition of ally," the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told The New York Times, days later, on the eve of a visit to the United Nations General Assembly meeting. The Americans had been unhappy with the tepid response of Morsi to the riots. He had been passionate about the video, deeply offended by it, but had been slow to condemn the protests. "We took our time," he said, "but in the end acted decisively."

He put the Americans on notice, giving them a preview of the difficulties of dealing with a "democratic" government unlikely to show American authorities excessive deference. The "soft Islamists" had come to power, and Washington had to adjust to life after the autocrats.

The harvest of the Arab Spring has brought forth a new breed of Islamists. Washington neither gave birth to them, nor has it been capable of thwarting their rise to power. The charge that the distant power had pushed Hosni Mubarak under the bus is tendentious and silly. A hurricane swept the autocrats out of power. Their rule rested on fear, and suddenly, fear was broken.

The Tunisians were done with the mafialike reign of "the family," as the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was called. Egypt was through with Mubarak; it had tolerated him for three long decades, and now it wanted more for itself than a drab dictatorship of an aging pharaoh. There had not been gifted storm trackers among the Americans, people who could read and anticipate the gathering tempest. This new president—Egypt's first democratically elected one—has come out of that great wind that came upon the Arabs. He is not eager to please the powers in Washington, paymasters who had been giving aid to Cairo since the mid-1970s.

"Successive American administrations," he told The New York Times, "essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region." There was a powerful truth in this remark: the Pax Americana had befriended and financed the dreaded autocrats, and those cunning rulers had displaced the wrath of their people onto the United States.

We had "allies" in the saddle, in those impenetrable Arab lands, but we could never crack the code of these regimes, nor truly come to terms with the manner they feigned friendship with us as they fed a culture of anti-American incitement. That "American Raj" in Cairo had given us Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohamed Atta. No tears need be shed for the age of the dictators.

Doubtless, it will be hard dealing with Morsi, a faithful product of the Muslim Brotherhood, but we should not be nostalgic for the reign of Hosni Mubarak, the pasha on the Nile. He had been treacherous in his own way.

For America, the irony of the rise of Mohamed Morsi is that this colorless functionary of the Muslim Brotherhood is the first Egyptian ruler steeped in American ways. His doctorate in engineering comes from the University of Southern California, which he earned in 1982. A village boy from the impoverished delta, he had made his way to the United States, courtesy of a government scholarship. In hindsight, he claims that he was shaped by America only "scientifically." But he hadn't been eager to leave the United States after completing his degree. He stayed on as a faculty member at California State University at Northridge.

This big American republic is suffused with contradictions: it was in Los Angeles that Morsi's wife was pulled into the orbit of the Muslim Brotherhood. Two of Morsi's sons were born in the United States. The American net had pulled Egypt along. It shaped and helped countless Egyptians, and, with this, comes the free-floating anti-Americanism now at play in Egypt.

Barack Obama had been cavalier about Egypt. We need only recall what he and his devotees had taken to be his finest hour on distant shores: the speech he gave in Cairo, in June of 2009. He was a newly elected leader, the herald of change. He had the power and the prestige of the United States, but he could address the Egyptians—and Muslims beyond—as the first American leader who had an intimate knowledge of Islam, perhaps, some claim, to the faith. He had Muslim relatives, he had lived in a Muslim country, he was a student of history, he said, and he knew the pain and hurt that Western colonialism had inflicted on his audience.

This was a flawed history, and modernist Egyptians know that. It was the coming of the West—most dramatically, the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte's military expedition off the coast of Alexandria in 1798—that had pulled Egypt out of its destitution and lethargy. Bonaparte had come with his celebrated team of savants. They brought with them curiosity, studied the flora and the fauna of Egypt, and their monumental work, Description de L'Égypte, volumes of inquiry, gave Egyptians the full measure of their history.

Sure enough, colonialism, direct and indirect, humiliated Egyptians, and for decades they were outcasts in their own country. But colonialism (much as it did in that singular encounter between England and India) had invented modern Egypt. The British may have been brutes in that Suez Canal zone when they dominated it, but European finance had built the Suez Canal.

Mohamed Morsi may want to flatter himself that it was solely the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood that shaped him, but this fifth president of Egypt after the fall of the monarchy is the first civilian, and the first to receive a coveted American doctorate. The Brotherhood may have always railed against America, but leading technocrats from the Brotherhood rose to professional success and prominence through American degrees, and the years in America took them beyond the cloistered world from which they hailed.

Morsi and the collective leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood know the terms of Egypt's relationship with the United States. They are in need of American financial assistance—theirs is a country that is the world's top importer of wheat, a burdened country with a budget deficit of 11 percent of GDP. Governance in Egypt is tethered to feeding and subsidizing a huge and rebellious population. Rulers have leeway in that crowded country, but food riots have been the nightmare of rulers. Washington's help is crucial, and the Brotherhood knows when purity has to yield to necessity.

In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak's demise, the Brotherhood had proudly asserted that it would not turn to the International Monetary Fund for assistance: populism was the rage. The Brotherhood talked of raising a $3.2 billion loan on the domestic market. Now the loan has risen to $4.8 billion, and the technocrats of the Brotherhood, negotiating with the IMF, are full of sweet reason.

Peace with Israel, the Brotherhood's leaders know, is essential to peace with the United States. In a world where men live out their desires, the Brotherhood would free itself from the terms of the Camp David accords. But Egyptians (along with the rest of us) live in worlds not always to our liking. If I were to hazard a guess, the Brotherhood will keep the unloved peace with Israel. The dealings with Israel will be outsourced to the military, and to the vast intelligence apparatus. Thus would the pious leaders of the Brotherhood keep their purity while maintaining a necessary peace with the Jewish state.

Morsi may claim, as he does now, that America's standing in Egypt, and in the wider Arab world, depends on Washington brokering a "just peace" between Israel and the Palestinians. But reason of state trumps the needs of the Palestinians. It should be recalled that the great peacemaker and pragmatist, Anwar al-Sadat, who pulled Egypt out of the swamp of the Arab-Israeli conflict, was always keen on paying tribute to that old Palestinian claim.

Defer as they will to Washington on the Camp David accords and peace with Israel, the new leaders of Egypt can call Washington's bluff. The perennial threat, popular in the U.S. Congress, of cutting off aid to Egypt, is hollow. A small minority in Congress has hankered after that. But Egypt's leaders have always operated on the premise that their country is too big to fail.

Like riverboat gamblers, they relish the game, secure in the knowledge that a country of more than 80 million people, at the crossroads of the world, so near to the oilfields of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, a Sunni balance to Shiite Iran, will always be bailed out. The Egyptian education of Barack Obama came late, but it came nonetheless.

Some historically literate staffer should have narrated to President Obama the tale of that even more flamboyant and glamorous visitor to Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte. The French adventurer had landed in Egypt at age 30 with a dream of an empire stretching from Egypt to the Indus.

"We must go to the East," he said. "All the great men of the world have there acquired their celebrity. The East is the nursery of kings." But the dream was not to be. His fleet was destroyed by the British, Egypt rebelled against his forces, and, 11 months after his arrival, the general deserted his army and slipped back to France.

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and cochair of its Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. This is adapted from Defining Ideas, a Hoover publication.