One of the striking features of last month's overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was the rage that came out in the street demonstrations against the Obama administration for its alleged backing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A CNN report on June 30 showed the crowds in Tahrir Square carrying anti-American signs saying: "Obama, stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood fascist regime." Some signs were aimed not only against President Barack Obama, but also against U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson.
Where did the crowd get this idea? Patterson detected before Morsi fell from power on July 7 that a significant number of Egyptians believed that the U.S. was working with the Muslim Brotherhood. She actually gave a speech on June 18 at the Ibn Khaldun Center "to set the record straight" on this subject. She suggested that some might be asking if the contacts between the U.S. Embassy and the Muslim Brotherhood over the years was being interpreted was "evidence of a long-term conspiracy to support the Muslim Brotherhood to replace the government of former President Hosni Mubarak." She explained to her audience that all countries "maintain contacts with those out of power." Her logic was simple: "Today's political outcasts may be tomorrow's leaders."
However, at the end of her speech she appeared to be taking a position against the planned anti-Morsi demonstration: "Some say that street action will produce better results than elections. To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical." For Egyptian critics of the Muslim Brotherhood, Patterson's words amounted to direct intervention into Egyptian domestic politics. The respected Lebanese daily An-Nahar added that Egyptian liberals felt that the U.S. had failed to criticize Morsi's authoritarian practices since he came to power, leading them to conclude that "Washington was 'in bed' with the Brotherhood."
What enraged these Egyptians even further was Patterson's visit the same week of her speech with Khairat el-Shater, the deputy head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who is widely regarded as the strongest figure in the organization. Secular Egyptians can understand when the U.S. ambassador meets with Egyptian officials who also happen to be members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But if she met with the leadership of the organization, outside of the framework of the Egyptian government, then that is interpreted by Morsi's opponents as an effort to legitimize the Muslim Brotherhood, even if it was not the intent of the U.S. ambassador.
In order to halt the spread of the rumors about the links between Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood, Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to add his voice, last week: "We firmly reject the unfounded and false claims by some in Egypt that the United States supports the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or any specific Egyptian political party or movement."
Yet this claim had become the conventional wisdom across the Middle East. The Wall Street Journal reported that when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cairo just before Morsi issued a declaration giving himself powers over the judiciary, there were suspicions that he had U.S. support, since Washington did not condemn him for what he had done.
Many in the Middle East have been surprised at U.S. policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood. Having provided political asylum for Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing Nasserist Egypt, after 9/11, Saudi Arabia completely revised its policy. Its late crown prince, Nayef bin Abdulaziz, called the Muslim Brotherhood "the source of all problems in the Islamic world."
A former Kuwaiti minister of education wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat in 2005 that "all those who worked with bin Laden and al-Qaida went out under the mantle of the Muslim Brotherhood." The main architect of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, came out of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood, while the roots of al-Qaida's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, can be traced to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
In recent years, America's Arab allies have expressed their serious reservations about the Muslim Brotherhood. In December 2012, the United Arab Emirates arrested a number of Muslim Brothers from Egypt who were accused of trying to plot the overthrow of the ruling family. In an April 2013 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, published in the Atlantic, Jordan's King Abdullah described the Muslim Brotherhood as "wolves in sheep's clothing." He described Jordan's "major fight" -- to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from conniving its way into power across the region. King Abdullah claimed his Western allies were naive about the Muslim Brotherhood's intentions.
But it would be incorrect to argue that the U.S. connection with the Muslim Brotherhood came out of the Obama administration, alone. The problem is deeper. Already in 2007, Foreign Affairs, a quarterly which might be seen as a weather vane of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, decided to publish a controversial article titled "The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood." The article was largely based on the conversations of its authors with senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. They wrote that the Muslim Brotherhood was discouraging jihad.
Yet on the website of the Muslim Brotherhood, the very opposite was written. The Muslim Brotherhood explained there in 2003 that it sought to recover "the lands robbed from Islam." This was consistent with the writings of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose newspaper wrote that Muslims should take back Spain, southern Italy and the Balkans. The web article concluded: "The problems of conquering the world will only end when the flag of Islam waves and jihad has been proclaimed." In 2005, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood boasted that his organization was active in 70 countries.
The main motivation of those in the West who support working with the Muslim Brotherhood is that it can serve as an alternative for young Egyptians to al-Qaida and other jihadist groups. But that is not what happened in the past. When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Sudan, it hosted jihadist leaders from Osama bin Laden to the heads of Hamas. It even allowed them to set up training camps during the 1990s.
Morsi's regime did not go that far, but it pardoned jihadist leaders who were in Egyptian prisons, like Mustafa Hamza, the leader of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) who was involved in the attempted assassination of President Mubarak and the 1997 Luxor massacre that left 62 dead. Morsi also promised to work for the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. More recently, in March, Morsi was pressing the Egyptian military academy to accept members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other hard-line jihadists. The Muslim Brotherhood was working closely with Hamas. An Egyptian general admitted on March 11 to Dubai's Al-Bayan newspaper that the Muslim Brotherhood was pressuring Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to ignore the tunnels from Sinai to the Gaza Strip.
The perception in the Middle East that the U.S. had been sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood may be overstated, but it is not entirely without foundation. A school of thought in Washington exists that truly believes that the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved into a moderate organization, with which the West can do business. It has been influencing policymaking since the second term of the Bush administration. But it is too early to establish whether the overthrow of Morsi will lead to the demise of this dangerously naive political theory or whether it will resurface in one of the other Arab states facing internal revolts as part of the Arab Spring.