Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he fears that Egypt’s revolution could be “hijacked” by the Muslim Brotherhood, adding that early elections would give the Islamist group an advantage over disorganized secular parties.
“Even though it’s a small minority of the country, it may be by far the best-organized political organization and the most disciplined and very likely the most vicious,” Mr. Rumsfeld said in an interview with The Washington Times.
“And I personally worry about Egypt, for example, with respect to the early elections and the fact that there may very well be no other entities, political organizational entities that exist in the country, that could have the capability of managing the process against the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Egyptians overwhelmingly approved a referendum on March 19 that speeds up the transition to civilian rule, with legislative elections to be held as soon as June and a presidential vote possibly in August.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who replaced Mr. Rumsfeld in December 2006, met in Cairo last week with the leaders of Egypt’s ruling military council and reportedly urged them to slow down the election timetable so budding secular parties could have time to bloom.
While the Brotherhood has promised not to field a presidential candidate, it is expected to become a major force in the legislature.
Citing Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and Hezbollah’s recent government coup in Lebanon as two Middle East uprisings “hijacked” by religious extremists, Mr. Rumsfeld dismissed suggestions that the Brotherhood could be a responsible player in the political process.
“It’s an organization that is, by our standards, radical and Islamist and certainly not benign,” he said. “They’re serious people.”
Mr. Rumsfeld, who has been on the road promoting his memoir, “Known and Unknown,” said that events in Egypt are far more important to the region and to U.S. strategic interests than what happens in Libya, where the U.S. and allies are in their second week of military action against Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
“I think that whatever is decided with respect to Libya or Tunisia ought to be thought about and decided with an eye toward what implications, if any, will our behavior and our actions in Libya have on the more important events that are taking place in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf,” he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld called President Obama’s handling of the Libya crisis “backwards” and said the United States has allowed the coalition to dictate the mission rather than the other way around.
He said he was certain that the reason the administration did not consult Congress first was that the White House was unsure about the purpose of the mission.
“If you go to Congress,” he said, “you’ve got to ask them for approval of what it is you want to do - and you have to know what it is you intend to do.”
Still, Mr. Rumsfeld offered scattered praise for the president’s policies, saying he was “greatly relieved” that the administration had preserved much of the Bush-era national security architecture.
“I began deeply concerned because he campaigned against the structure President Bush put in place to protect the American people,” he said.
“I’m greatly relieved that he’s left in place indeterminate detention, that he’s left in place Guantanamo Bay, which is a fine prison. … And apparently, they’re leaving in place military commissions now. And I think that is a good thing.”
Mr. Rumsfeld also said he thought Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was exerting a positive influence on the administration.
“One has to think that when the White House is discussing things, it would appear that Secretary of State Clinton is bringing more of a Clintonesque contribution to those discussions than an Obama contribution,” he said.
“It isn’t probably the way President Bush would have done [it], but my impression is that she probably is a voice in that administration that is probably closer to where the Bush approach was.”
As for Mr. Gates, Mr. Rumsfeld offered a few kind words - six, to be exact:
“Seems to be handling himself well.”
• Ben Birnbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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