Egyptian President Muhamed Morsi is astonishing observers. He's thrown everyone off balance. He's full of amazing surprises. His secret? He makes so many blunders, it's impossible to know which one he'll make next. Sadly, his actions -- driven by authoritarian impulse and orders from his Muslim Brotherhood masters -- are bad news for those who hoping Egyptians will enjoy a better future.
Permitting a key adviser to deny the holocaust was inexcusable. Now, as concerns about violence against women grow worldwide, the Muslim Brotherhood has denounced the UN's Violence Against Women Declaration as "the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries," certain to lead to "the complete disintegration of society." The Brotherhood must have forgotten than women stood at the front lines in Tahrir Square, risking their lives for social justice and democracy.
Journalist Rana Allam commented acidly:
"I would so much rather we really go backwards, till we reach the days when Hatshepsut was Pharaoh of Egypt and the country had a flourishing economy, booming trade and peace. Unfortunately we are only going backwards enough to get to the days when women were slaves for pleasure and child-bearing."
In an eloquent speech, Hilary Clinton has denounced politicians who treat women as "second-class citiziens, at worse as some kind of subhuman species." The blind arrogance of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood underscores two points she raised. "It is no coincidence," she observed, that "so many of the countries where the rule of law and democracy are struggling to take root are the same places where women and girls cannot participate as full and equal citizens." And she made the vital link between standing up for the values of equality and dignity and countering violent extremism. They are lessons Morsi and his cohorts do not grasp or care about. The failure turns his own regime, his citizens, and potentially Egypt's prosperity and security, into victims.
Perhaps Morsi believes that his apparently cordial relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama will keep the aid money flowing and his regime afloat. The U.S. needs ask hard questions about whether Morsi is worth the price. His intelligence chief Rafaat Shehata just met in Cairo with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, hardly an encouraging sign. More alarming are the unconfirmed reports about Morsi meeting with al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri during his recent visit to Pakistan. Citing the website Misr al-Gidida, the Middle East Forum's Raymond Ibrahim notes that Morsi possibly met with Zawahiri to explore secretly allowing the terrorist back into Egypt, perhaps to cultivate favor with Islamists who see one of the world's most infamous criminals as a hero.
The U.S. needs to confront Morsi about this rumored meeting and make clear our support is neither infinite nor unqualified. President George W. Bush was adamant that anyone -- or any State -- harboring a terrorist will be deemed one. President Obama has maintained that stance. We must press Morsi to see if he met with Zawahiri, demand he share information and details -- and make clear the consequences should the rumor prove true. There needs to be a reckoning about how far the U.S. is willing to go to aid Morsi. Cordial relations with Egypt's military make sense. But there's no point in sharing blame should Morsi preside over a collapsed economy and a new revolution. Unfortunately, that's the path he's taking Egypt down. Good politicians aim for win-win's. The only word to describe Morsi's policies to date is loser.
The only bright spot in Morsi's actions is, inevitably, perverse. The global media has well covered Morsi's knuckled-headed detention of satirist Bassem Youssef. The action stood as more proof that neither Morsi nor the Muslim Brotherhood values free expression. But the episode highlights a key opportunity in forging strategy to counter violent extremism.
We've made this point for years and it's time for the U.S. and its allies to capitalize on it: mockery offers a great way to knock authoritarians back on their heels. When A Nation Smiles, a TV show that pokes fun at Lebanese politicians, satirized Hezbollah Party Secretary Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah took to the streets. In Iran, clerics shut down the much acclaimed satiric comedy film, Marmoulak, about a thief who disguises himself as a Mullah, fearing that humor would undermine their already tattered credibility. Youssuf shows that Morsi is no less prickly, and his humor and Morsi's response is revealing. Humor resonates in the Middle East. Witness the plethora of sharp-witted editorial cartoons many regional newspapers publish. The U.S. can draw a lesson. We should employ humor and satire to expose, discredit, and marginalize intolerant Islamists or violent extremists, and force them into making mistakes which expose them for what they truly are.
James P. Farwell has advised the US SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND, is an expert on political issues in the Middle East and author of a new book, Persuasion & Power (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012). The views expressed are his own and not those of the U.S. Government, its departments, agencies or COCOM.