- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Word on the street here in Cairo is that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has become an Islamist overnight.
It’s not a joke. Clinton was greeted by protests upon visiting Egypt this weekend — but this time it wasn’t just Islamists who were denouncing the United States. Rather, opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood rallied to object to what they saw as Clinton’s support for President Mohamed Morsy, who hails from the Islamist movement’s ranks. Tawfiq Okasha, a staunch supporter of Egypt’s military establishment, led a protest outside the Four Seasons hotel, where Clinton was staying. In the city of Alexandria, protesters taunted Clinton with chants of "Monica, Monica" — a reference to Monica Lewinsky — and threw tomatoes and shoes at her motorcade.
The dissatisfaction can’t be dismissed as the work of a few rabble-rousers. Leading members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community refused to meet with Clinton due to the U.S. government’s "support for Islamism over other political and civil forces." The meeting with Coptic leaders who did show up apparently did not go any more smoothly: According to human rights campaigner Hossam Bahgat, one speaker accused the White House of being infiltrated by Islamists — and pointed to Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, Huma Abedine, as evidence.
If Hillary Clinton is indeed a covert Islamist, she’s not doing a very good job eliminating the tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the U.S. government. The list of potential issues goes on and on: The Brotherhood’s uncertain guarantees of equal rights to Copts and women, its shaky commitment to inclusive democracy, and its antagonism toward Israel are just a few of the subjects that could trip up relations with the United States. Decades of built-up antagonism and suspicion can sabotage even the most basic cooperation: Just this month, a spokesman for the Brotherhood’s political party accused the American NGO workers who were arrested under the former military government of being involved in "intelligence work." (start at 34:40)
As Clinton said at the presidential palace in Cairo on Saturday, being forced to choose between Egypt’s diverse political forces is exactly what the United States doesn’t want to do. "President Morsy made clear that he understands the success of his presidency — and indeed, of Egypt’s democratic transition — depends on building consensus across the Egyptian political spectrum," she told the assembled media. Only such a coalition, she said, will allow him "to assert the full authority of the presidency."
Egypt’s leaders, however, have shown little sign that they are willing to accommodate Clinton’s ecumenical approach. Supreme Council of the Armed Forces chief Mohamed Hussein Tantawi seized the opportunity following his meeting with Clinton to say that the military would prevent Egypt from falling under the control of a "certain group" — a reference to the Brotherhood. If the conflict does reach a crisis point, we may finally see how far Clinton’s sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood goes.