The Middle East Channel

Morsi takes Manhattan, but Washington's another story

Historically, Washington has been more comfortable extolling democracy than accepting its consequences, particularly in the strategically important Middle East. Algerian democracy had no place in the "new world order" of former President George H.W. Bush. His administration backed a military coup against an elected Islamist parliament in Algeria. Palestinian democracy did not fit in the "Freedom Agenda" of George W. Bush, who refused to deal with the Hamas-led government Palestinian voters elected in 2006. Now, as Egyptians build their own democracy, the Obama administration is struggling to synch its policies with its early hopes for "A New Beginning" in U.S.-Muslim relations, particularly evident in this week's New York visit by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi for the U.N. General Assembly.

Morsi's predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was elected in 2005 with 6.3 million votes. No independent observers considered the contest free or fair, and Mubarak's landslide 88 percent victory said more about his iron-fisted rule than his popularity. Prior to being ousted in February 2011, Mubarak met multiple times with U.S. President Barack Obama: in Egypt, before Obama delivered his speech at Cairo University, as well as at the White House for bilateral and multilateral discussions.

The 61-year old Morsi comes to the United Nations with far greater legitimacy. In June 13.2 million Egyptians (nearly 52 percent of voters) sent Morsi to the presidential palace. He thus enjoys the second largest democratic mandate of a sitting Middle East leader -- after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who garnered 21.4 million voters in 2011). Perhaps not coincidentally (given the electoral appeal of Islamists across the region), Morsi shares with Erdogan a lifetime of involvement in his country's leading moderate Islamist movement. But the processes that brought these men into office matter as much as the political programs they espouse. Obama called in 2009 for governments "that reflect the will of the people" and "maintain ... power through consent, not coercion." Mubarak would never have delivered, but Egyptian protesters did. After they ousted Mubarak, Obama correctly observed "that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day." Egyptians again underscored his point through competitive elections this past year.

But Morsi's democratic bona fides have not brought a White House invitation or even a presidential tête-à-tête in Manhattan. The White House is reportedly avoiding Morsi partly because of Obama's break-neck campaign schedule and mostly because Morsi failed to secure the US embassy in Cairo from rioters earlier this month. Undeterred, Morsi says he wants Egypt and the United States to be not just strategic allies, but friends. Ironically, America's friendship may prove more elusive for a post-Mubarak and more democratic Egypt, where politicians like Morsi rise and fall through elections not repression.  

Renowned Egyptian journalist and dissident Moustafa Amin once lamented that, "America allies itself with dictatorships because it is easy to deal with despots, while it is difficult to work with democratic states ... America spends years negotiating with democracies, while it can reach agreement with an autocrat in just a few minutes." His observation helps explains why relations between Obama and Morsi already differ dramatically from the ties between their forebears.

Former President Jimmy Carter sealed the present-day U.S.-Egyptian relationship with the Camp David Accords and Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. During the historic talks of 1978-1979, he capitalized on the ability of his unelected Egyptian counterpart to overrule advisors and constituents -- bringing agreement in a few minutes. In a paroxysm of capitulation at Camp David, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat even told his delegation he would sign anything Carter gave him without reading it. Likewise, when it came to finalizing the treaty, the Egyptian leader gave Carter, in National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski's words, "carte blanche for his subsequent negotiations with the Israelis." After what Carter described as an exhausting three days of negotiations in Israel, he returned to Egypt for quick final approval: "There was some equivocation among his advisers, but after a few minutes Sadat interrupted to say, ‘This is satisfactory with me.'" Sadat did not live to savor the fruits of peace (he was assassinated six months before Israel finished withdrawing from the Sinai Peninsula). His successor, Mubarak, maintained the treaty and backed U.S. foreign policy while jailing his domestic opponents, including Morsi.

For U.S. officials the transition from Mubarak to Morsi will probably cause some headaches and certainly require a few tough conversations. Morsi is unlikely to summarily dismiss his lieutenants or give any U.S. president "carte blanche" where Egypt's vital interests are concerned. Indeed, the Egyptian president declared before the United Nations General Assembly that Cairo would not tolerate foreign dictates:

"[T]his revolution, and all the ones preceding it and following it in the region, were triggered by the long struggle of authentic national movements that sought a life of pride and dignity for all citizens. It is thereby reflecting the wisdom of history, and is sending a clear warning to those attempting to put their interests before those of their peoples."

His stance suggests it will no longer be "easy" for Washington to elicit Egyptian cooperation on Middle East diplomacy or security cooperation, nor should it be. Like in any country, the foreign policy of Egypt will be healthier when it reflects the will of the public, instead of the whims of a dictator -- or his foreign patrons.

Although Morsi's visit to New York captured headlines, the real watershed for U.S.-Egyptian relations lies ahead, in Washington. When the present campaign season is over, the Obama (or Romney) administration and congress will need to begin addressing Egypt not simply as an ally or a friend, but as an equal. Equality will mean appreciating the reciprocal benefits of the bilateral relationship. That, for example, while billions of dollars in military aid have gone to Egypt, the Pentagon has enjoyed invaluable overflight rights through Egyptian airspace and expedited passage through the Suez Canal. It will mean dealing with the Egyptian president and legislators as U.S. representatives expect to be treated when they visit Cairo. And it will mean recognizing that spreading democracy and development in the Middle East requires heeding the concerns of those who live there.

Jason Brownlee is an associate professor of Government and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. His research was supported in part by a Travel-Research-Engagement grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science. His most recent book is Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance.

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The Middle East Channel

Planting the seeds of Tunisia's Ansar al Sharia

The attack on Benghazi's U.S. consulate propelled a new jihadist organization into the political spotlight: Ansar al Sharia. As a number of groups sharing the same name have emerged across the Middle East and North Africa, pundits now scrabble for details of this little known yet seemingly ascendant force of global jihadism. This week, an interview with Hassen Brik, a spokesperson for Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, offered some clues as to the motivations and personalities behind the organization's development in Tunisia.

As we enter the family home in Tunis, it becomes clear that the lives of Tunisia's vilified jihadists cannot be reduced to the images of pious fanaticism on which the western media relies. We are greeted by his sister; unveiled, she is casually dressed in khaki cut-offs and a vest top. She says she feels under no pressure from Hassen to dress conservatively. His brothers, too, have followed very different life trajectories. Karim, in fact, goes by the stage name "Minissi" and has gained a large domestic following for his self-produced rap music. In contrast, their eldest brother is a military man, having served as an army sniper during the Ben Ali era.

The life of 34-year old Hassen has, of course, taken a different turn. In 2003, he traveled to Iraq as a fighter but ended up stationed across the border in Syria, operating a safe house for potential jihadists as they were vetted and trained for the mission ahead. There, he was arrested and deported back to Tunisia where he was imprisoned under the anti-terrorism law. And it was in these jails, Hassen tells us, that Ansar al Sharia was born. He claims that communal prayer time served as a forum for discussion and refining ideas that would be put into practice on release.

Ansar al Sharia's moment arrived with Tunisia's revolution. In March 2011, the new transitional government pardoned a number of prisoners who had been convicted under the Ben Ali regime's repressive anti-terrorism laws. Among their number was Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (more commonly known as Abu Iyadh), who would lead a press conference the following month to announce the public debut of Ansar al Sharia.*

A fighter abroad and a preacher at home, Hassen believes that it is now his duty to open da'wa offices across the country, offering a religious education that conforms to Ansar al Sharia's interpretation of Islam. "This is a long-term vision to prepare society," he says, "We are for jihad, armed revolution, but we cannot do this if the people are not with us. It will only be possible when everyone is behind the vision. Look at Libya, the insurrection was only successful once armed and sharing a common vision."

Although little is known about Ansar al Sharia, Hassen emphasizes that its members do not want to stay in the shadows. "Now we want to talk," he says, "We want to be open, even if you are from the CIA."

References to American power run through many of his assertions and he attributes his own imprisonment to the counterterrorism policies of the Bush administration. "It used to be permissible to study the Koran openly," he says, "but after 2004 the government terrorized us on American orders."

He is referring to Tunisia's 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law, legislation that allowed security forces to arrest civilians with alleged links to terrorist organizations drawing praise from the U.S. State Department. Cases were usually held in private court sessions and many defendants claim that their convictions were based on confessions extracted through torture.

Popular reactions to Ansar al Sharia's emergence have been hostile. Described in the Tunisian media as an "Islamist cancer," the secular middle classes have greeted its rise with a mixture of horror and revulsion. Nor has it found favor with more moderate Islamist groups. The ruling Ennahda party has blamed the organization for this month's attacks on the U.S. embassy, and followers of the more moderate "scripturalist" brand of Salafism also distance themselves from the violent tactics of their theological counterparts.

When asked if Ansar al Sharia can realistically attract wider support, Hassen counters that Tunisian society has failed to listen to its message: "We are trying to extend our hand to the Tunisian people but they aren't taking it yet. We bring a new vision of politics for the Arab world, but we know this will take time. After 50 years of Bourgiba and Ben Ali, people have lost their religion and we are feeding it."

References to the broader regional context litter his speech, although he denies that his organization is operationally linked to organizations in Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and Morocco that share the same name.

Turning to the subject of attacks on U.S. targets in Tunis the previous week, Hassen chooses his words carefully. Young Ansar al Sharia followers were involved, he says, but not on the direct instructions of the leadership.

"We do not deny that violent acts were committed in our name. We have made mistakes and many of our number have been behind bars. Now we are rehabilitating them, but this will take time. They need to be educated in the very foundations of Islam.

These boys of the districts follow us because they are tired of politicians' immorality. They appreciate our coherence: our words come straight from the heart."

A visit to Tunis's working class El Khadra suburb the previous day suggested that there is truth in this sentiment. Although few were willing to openly align themselves with Ansar al Sharia, several young men expressed admiration at the organization's piety and its refusal to engage in high-level political squabbles. Abu Iyadh's name commanded particular enthusiasm, in the words of one young man, "he is strong where Ennahda are weak. He is the only man to stand up against the Americans."

Demographic studies of those convicted under Tunisia's anti-terrorism laws show that the jihadists have previously found these neighborhoods to be fertile ground for recruitment. Today their inhabitants remain as socially and economically marginalized as they were under Ben Ali, a reality which continues to escape many who rail against Ansar al Sharia as an aberration within Tunisia's cosmopolitan society.

"We stand in solidarity with the weakest," Hassan says, "and in time we will have local leaders who organize the boys."

Yet the notion that Ansar al Sharia's message has found real resonance within small sections of Tunisian society continues to escape the country's chattering classes. High-level political discussion revolves around constitutional issues with little attempt to address the grievances of the most vulnerable. But this is a social blindness that they cannot afford to maintain. "For us, this is an opportunity to plant our seeds in the sunlight." Hassan concludes, "and we are starting to see the fruit."

Louisa Loveluck is a freelance journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs and a researcher at the International State Crime Initiative. She blogs at

* Correction, the article originally inaccurately stated Abu Ibayn had been detained at Guantanamo.