Can Washington Bring Justice to Cairo?

Official U.S. discussions with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a good start, assuming that Washington has something useful to say, and “useful” means offering the MB a better deal than responding to regime violence with its own violence. Time is getting short.

Mediating between a regime in power–much less an illegal regime that seized power in a coup and then violated its own promises by immediately carrying out a purge against its political opponents (rather than setting up a neutral caretaker administration)–and a “changed” regime in prison is obviously not a genuine or fair mediation. The mediation is even less genuine and fair when the US continues to support the coup leaders.

Nevertheless, Obama’s initiative still has the makings of a really innovative approach. The devil is in the details, and one can only hope that Burns had something more substantive to say to the Muslim Brotherhood than “avoid violence.” The obvious near-term goal would look something like release of all political prisoners, a genuine caretaker government including the Muslim Brotherhood or excluding both MB and the military, to be followed quickly by elections. I would read the report that Burns counseled that the prisoners and their allies outside of jail avoid violence as simply a very superficial report by the writer until seeing evidence to the contrary. The whole Administration will look idiotic in the eyes of all Egyptians in the know if it poses as mediator while in practice condoning both coup and the arrest of Brotherhood leaders.

Obama must offer something that works to re-create a structure of peaceful political competition, something Egypt enjoyed only for the few months between Tahrir and the coup. In public this process has hardly started. But at least the US is meeting with both sides, a far more intelligent approach than the Neo-Cons’ self-defeating attitude of refusing to talk to adversaries (e.g., Iran).The military coup leaders’ stance of refusing to compromise on its plans and allowing its political adversaries to return to the political stage only after they stop protesting–as though protesting were not a core aspect of being on the political stage–seem nothing more than the hypocritical pretense of a dictator determined to retain its grasp on power. Obama must offer the MB an enticement that goes well beyond this.

The global foreign policy disaster of the post-9/11 exploitation of Muslim violence by Washington as an opportunity to engage in brutal military repression of adversaries and presumed adversaries whenever they challenge Washington’s right to run the world will only be replaced by a more rational, measured foreign policy supportive of long-range U.S. national security if Washington learns to engage in sincere, open-minded, two-way communication with Muslim political activists (a phrase encompassing a vast array of different political and religious perspectives). In that light, U.S. diplomatic contacts with MB are to be welcomed and even the involvement of such politicians as McCain and Graham are useful as a political move to legitimize “talking with Muslims” among violence-prone Republicans, although neither of those two gentlemen has exhibited much understanding of the Muslim world. But the bottom line is still that once the U.S. gets involved and starts talking, it will have to have something to say.

Getting so deeply involved comes at a cost, no doubt: now Obama is committed and will need to make some real progress. Telling the guys in jail to avoid violence is merely spitting in their faces as long as the regime is committing the violence of incarceration against them.

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