PRICE: Obama’s miscues in Egypt

U.S. support for religious zealots disserved the cause of democracy

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The 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya mushroomed into a revolution, with thousands of people taking to the streets. In Egypt, the economy was faltering and people had long felt disenfranchised. With high unemployment, skyrocketing food prices and gasoline shortages prevalent, poverty plagued the country. Anger soon unleashed people eager for change.

Although a liberal secular candidate could have been chosen, the first democratic election selected Mohammed Morsi, a member of the radical Muslim Brotherhood movement, who promised freedom and prosperity.

It soon became apparent that Mr. Morsi was more interested in consolidating his power under strict Islamic tenets than developing democratic institutions. The Muslim Brotherhood had finally prevailed after 80 years of attempting to take control of Egypt, turning the clock back to a time when Islam ruled most of the Maghreb, or Northwest Africa.

I have recently visited Kenya, Mali, Ethiopia and Somaliland — areas with a rich, cultural tribal history but plagued for years with famine and strife — each struggling with fragile democratic institutions. Radical Islam emanated in recent years from North Africa, destabilizing the Sahel region. People in these countries fear that instability in Egypt and neighboring countries will increase the presence of Islamist extremists in sub-Saharan Africa.

On July 3, two days after I returned, Mr. Morsi was removed from office by military commanders after serving only one year as president. People had rebelled against Mr. Morsi’s failed policies following his inability to bring the country out of chaos. The people had hoped for a change — freedom and prosperity. Instead, Mr. Morsi dwelled on establishing an Islamic state.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, scholar, diplomat and liberal democratic reformer, observed, “Morsi has usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt’s new pharaoh, a major blow to the revolution that could have dire consequences.”

At a dinner I attended in Salt Lake City on Sept. 13, Mr. ElBaradei said that he had supported the protesters pursuing democratic reforms and the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. The Obama administration had pressed for regime change. But Mr. ElBaradei said the United States had acted too slowly. Although Mr. Mubarak was a dictator, he was our ally for more than 30 years before being deposed and imprisoned. In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi was hunted down and killed by Islamists, and in Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was deposed, and forced to flee to Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Morsi was supported by the United States throughout his disastrous first year in office, even though he did not govern justly. The United States backed him, I think, out of fear of losing access to the Suez Canal, and the growing concern over honoring the Israeli Peace Accord of 1979 — more so than for building democratic institutions.

On July 4, Mr. ElBaradei stated, “In my judgment, we could not have waited even one more week. We just lost 2 years.” The regime change did not bring about stability or a better quality of life for the people. Although the deposed dictator had his detractors, there was also a more peaceful and secure environment affecting daily life.

The Obama administration embarked on regime change without an end-game plan. The election of Mr. Morsi was a win for the Muslim Brotherhood’s radical Islamic movement and a loss for liberals and secularists. Mr. Morsi almost immediately pushed to create an Islamic state ruled under Islamic law.

The State Department defended the regime change, stating, “It was the process that matters, not the ideologies of those taking part. Along the way we trained and gave guidance to the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist candidates in the electioneering process.” In reality, the Salafis and Islamists only wanted freedom to politicize their narrow theology — the orthodox tenets of Islam — which is alien to the tenets of democracy.

In the end, Mr. Morsi failed to become a tolerant and inclusive leader, having no intent on establishing democratic institutions. He became just another despot — and deposing him was the only option. The well-funded Muslim Brotherhood will not give up, as they actively seek power in the Maghreb and Arabian Peninsula.

History has proved that for revolutions in which religions interfere with the governing process, the outcome will not be a democracy. Religious zealots do not understand the guiding principles of democracy as stated by President Abraham Lincoln: “government of the people, by the people, for the people .”

John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Comoros.

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