Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy took a welcome hit this week with the election of a moderate. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood state in Egypt, taking billions in U.S. aid, promotes ever more extreme theocrats to ranking positions.
No one who has set foot in post-revolutionary Egypt should be surprised that President Mohamed Morsi installed a hard-core Islamist with ties to tourist-murderers as governor of Luxor this past week.
Asaad al-Khayyat is a founding member of Gamaa Islamiya, a terrorist group that killed 58 tourists outside Luxor in 1997. He was also detained by security officials but not charged after the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981. (The Brotherhood has also welcomed Mr. Sadat’s actual assassin—on the lam for decades—back into Egypt. Rumor has it that he might even run for office himself.)
American progressives consistently seek signs of enlightenment in the great Egyptian revolution. But things will get darker before they get light again in Cairo.
Last year around this time, I was in Luxor, an Egyptian city on the Nile that is home to some of Egypt’s legendary ancient sites, including Karnak and Thebes. Luxor is one of the crown jewels of the country’s tourism industry.
Besides a few archaeologists and intrepid Germans, the streets were bare and the hotels more than half-empty. It was a few days before authorities announced that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mr. Morsi had been elected president.
I took a walk down the dusty main drag and bought a piece of gold jewelry at one of the shops. Not another soul walked in while I was there. The proprietor told me sadly that tourism was down 90 percent. He blamed the Islamists. His brother, who owned the silver shop next door, blamed the kleptocrats of the Mubarak regime. The men had voted for opposite parties.
A few nights later, we rolled up to Sharm el-Sheikh, a seaside playground for tourists and wealthy Egyptians alike. There, on the shores of the Red Sea, a scowling young waiter with the Islamists’ trademark ’stache-less beard and short hair declined to serve me a glass of wine. “You look tired,” he said, smirking. He simply failed to return to the table when another female joined me. One of his colleagues sheepishly stepped in and took over service.
On the beach there, I saw my first burkinis, the head-to-toe black bodysuits with little skirts and hoods meant to allow hard-core religious women to cool off in the 120 degree heat by swimming without attracting male gaze and offending Allah. The enduring image I took from that beach was the sight of a woman in full burkini slathering sunscreen on the hairy flesh of her consort, a walrus in a Speedo. It apparently never occurred to anyone that the hairy fat male body might not be pleasing to the eye of someone, somewhere.
The Brotherhood’s loathing not only for exposed female flesh and unaccompanied women but also for Western nongovernmental organizations and tourists of any gender is plain to anyone who has traveled to Egypt in recent years.
Gamaa’s website is explicitly anti-tourist and urges members not to participate in the trade. “Because tourist villages have aspects that anger Allah, including alcohol, gambling and other forbidden things, building these hotels and villages is considered aiding their owners in sin and aggression, and is not permitted,” the site reads.
Luxor’s tourism minister told reporters he was furious at the choice of governors and planned to resist. Tharwat Agamy, the head of Luxor’s tourism chamber, told reporters that tourist-industry executives in the city had threatened to stop Mr. Khayyat from entering the building. They said they would change the locks and “send him back to the airport.”
“It is unimaginable that those who plotted, participated or played any role in the massacre of Luxor become the rulers, even if they renounced and repented it,” Mr. Agamy told reporters.
But who cares about Western tourism, source of economic lifeblood for millions, when you’ve got the sins of the libertine Egyptian people to weed out first?
Mr. Morsi’s choice for governing Luxor coincides with mass pillaging of antiquities at ancient sites all over Egypt, which are no longer guarded by an effective government bureaucracy. The looting is abetted by some religious leaders, who have ordered “pagan” objects to be destroyed or issued directives on the “correct” Islamic way to tomb-rob, according to the journalist Betsy Hiel last weekend.
Whenever I have interviewed Brotherhood leaders and their counterparts in the more extreme Salafi group, they have insisted that their first goal is to rule in a clean and honest manner, in contrast to the corrupt and hated Mubarak regime. They also acknowledge that if they don’t address the nation’s chronic poverty and help people eat and get jobs, they won’t have much time to accomplish their morality cleanup. One in four Egyptians lives below the poverty line of $1.65 a day. Since 1989, the Egyptian government has subsidized bread, which sells for less than a penny a loaf. Without the subsidy, millions would starve.
Unfortunately, the Brotherhood is proving more adept at reducing tourism—its ailing nation’s lifeline to cash from the outside world—and rejecting liberal Western ideas than transforming Egypt into a functioning society that feeds its people.
It has offered chest-thumping spectacles like the trial and recent conviction of 43 NGO employees, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (sentenced in absentia to five years in jail), for supposedly operating without licenses and receiving illicit foreign funds. The NGOs deny it.
In fact, when the Egyptian government first went after the foreign NGOs last year, it conducted a survey to ferret out which organizations were getting the most foreign aid and from where. The highest figure was coming from Saudi Arabia and going to the Salafists. That organization, obviously, has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
To complement its circus of convicting in-absentia Western NGO employees of non-existent crimes, the Brotherhood is going into the bread business. The economists and engineers who make up the bulk of the Brotherhood’s leadership are now personally delivering the subsidized loaves themselves, in addition to subsidized fuel, to the poorest neighborhoods in an apparent push to shore up support. “Bread isn’t my line of work, but it’s important, so I freed up my time,” Mohamed Gaber, a Brotherhood activist who was delivering subsidized bread to the poor in a run-down part of Alexandria, told Reuters last week.
The American response to Egypt’s troubles has been measured. In 2011, President Obama offered to forgive $1 billion of the country’s $3.2 billion debt, and he has not stanched gushers of military funding. This year, Congress attached a requirement to any money transfers that the secretary of state confirm that Egypt is honoring its peace treaty with Israel and “supporting the transition to civilian government, including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.” Secretary of State Clinton certified that last year, clearing the way for continued U.S. aid.
On June 7, Secretary of State Kerry quietly and without fanfare renewed $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid to Egypt for 2013. Our nation’s policymakers clearly hope carrots of aid will keep Egypt’s Islamists on peaceful terms with Israel. But those pallets of Yankee dollars are proving ineffectual with regard to other U.S. interests, not to mention those of the Egyptian people. Mr. Morsi’s nose-thumbing choice of a Luxor governor whose organization actually murdered tourists ought to give the certifiers in the State Department something to think about before the U.S. Treasury cuts the next big check.