October 3, 2012


Morsi, Obama, and the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship (Fouad Ajami, Oct 1, 2012, Daily Beast)

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.

Posted by at October 3, 2012 8:17 PM

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