“I want to be in Trump’s cabinet!” the Egyptian general told a visiting American this summer. His enthusiasm, while extreme, was not isolated. Threats of a Muslim immigration ban notwithstanding, President-elect Donald Trump has many fans in the Middle East, especially among governments that have grown increasingly weary of the Obama administration.
While it is hard to predict just how a Trump presidency will unfold, there are some early signs that the optimism is unfounded. President-elect Trump is likely to break a lot of hearts in the Middle East. The problem is partly in what he says he will do, but also partly in how the world may react.
In December 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The reaction was swift and fierce not only from governments with large Muslim populations, but also from Muslim communities that had been working with governments to curb violent extremism in their midst. Over time, Trump mellowed. His statements evolved into a call for “extreme vetting,” which is largely already in place. Alarm diminished.
In fact, in Trump’s decisiveness the regional leaders see promise. They feel comfort from Trump’s admiration for the sort of strong leadership he sees in Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many see a little bit of Putin in themselves, in the Russian leader’s indifference to a hostile international press and a harsh—and sometimes murderous—approach to his political opposition. Governments such as Egypt’s, which see little difference between al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood and despair that few Western governments share that view, see Trump as a savior. Rather than nagging them to co-opt their critics, they see a Trump administration as one understanding that many of their critics are irredeemable.
They also like the fact that Trump has advertised a desire to “get tough on Iran.” He seemed to be speaking for many of them when he called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between six countries and Iran “a disgrace,” “an embarrassment,” and “incomprehensible.” Many regional governments complain that Obama’s pursuit of the deal caused the United States to turn a blind eye to Iranian misbehavior...