by Barry Rubin
“You have always yearned for this chance and now you have it. A wind is blowing from paradise sweet with the smell of martyrdom.” — Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s leader Hasan al-Banna, December 10, 1947
“The world will see it is impossible to beat Arabs by force.” — Arab Summit Declaration, December 24, 1947
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down!” — Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
How is Egypt’s revolution different from a real democratic revolution, as in Eastern Europe? Here’s a symbolic way to remember it.
The most famous line, at least from an American, on the road to Eastern Europe’s transformation cane from President Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Eventually the East German people did the job. The tearing down of the wall was a symbol of opening the borders, letting in the light of the outer world, throwing out the old totalitarian ideas that had sat on the people’s heads and pecked at their brains for decades.
While the tearing down of a wall in Berlin signaled a democratic and liberating revolution in Eastern Europe, it symbolizes the decision to make the Egyptian revolution the basis for a new dictatorship of hatred, blindness, and destruction.
Consider Robert Frost’s 1914 poem about walls. Its often-misunderstood theme is that his stubborn neighbor insists on the fence being repaired, explaining, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost wants a peace process up in New Hampshire. It’s a lot of work for him to maintain the wall, natural forces keep subverting it, and there’s really no threat that requires it. Of the two properties the fence divides, Frost complains:
“He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines….”
Frost’s poem is so popular because it expresses a very common Western idea so often deployed in discussions in the Middle East: There’s no real problem! Can’t we all be friends? Who needs walls that divide people? Conflicts that are irrational, that give no material benefit to either side, can and must be quickly terminated.
Frost describes his stubborn wall-repairing neighbor in the way that many Western politicians, “experts,” and media describe Israel, “like an old-stone [age] savage armed,” so backward and paranoid as to still want to keep up fences in our enlightened age. Enemies are illusions, or at the least of our own making. Defending yourself is an act of aggression, of primitivism. The September 11 attacks were thus caused by America’s sins.
Thus, they say, Israel doesn’t need defensible borders when it can have a perfectly good piece of paper ensuring that all problems go away.
But Frost, being a good poet and a farmer who didn’t learn everything he knows about reality in a classroom, also explains one reason his own wall kept crumbling — a never-quoted section of the poem corresponding to the kinds of things the mass media usually leaves out:
“The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.”
Gorbachev’s fences were to keep in oppressed people; our fences are to keep out those inciting “the yelping dogs” in their murderous rage. Sometimes you need a fence when your neighbor really is trying to kill you. And he doesn’t want that fence there because it’s in the way of his homicidal goal.
Let me insert here a metaphor for understanding contemporary Arab politics. Arab nationalists have been hitting their heads against a stone wall for 60 years, trying to destroy Israel, defeat the West, and reestablish a great empire. The few moderate pragmatists propose to stop this madness. Instead, the Islamists explain that the way to piety, glory, and total victory is to spend 60 years more battering their heads against that stone wall much harder. Guess who is winning the debate?
One such wall, a flimsy fence actually, marks the Egypt-Israel border. A group of terrorists recently cut through it so they could attack and kill Israeli civilians on a nearby road inside Israel.
Since the terrorists sought to exterminate Israel and stage a revolution in Egypt, this was the kind of event that should bring neighboring countries to work together against a common threat. That would have happened during the Mubarak regime. Now, however, with that government gone, a junta fearful of the mob, partly sharing its views, and denied the tools of repression stands aside.
It is generally forgotten, but a neglected verse of a certain American song, written in September 1814, almost two hundred years ago to this day, shows a time when the United States knew precisely that kind of threat of national destruction:
“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
…A home and a country [they] should leave us no more!”
Well, in Israel’s case that band is located in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon, Iran, and in several other places (including a surprising number of Western university campuses) and is now opening a new franchise in Turkey.
Some other walls and murderous bands are within Egypt itself. These include protective walls built by Christians around churches. Mobs of Egyptian Muslims attack these walls as police or soldiers stand by and don’t intervene, albeit ready to spring into action to shoot or arrest the Christians defending themselves. There is a word in Jewish history for such situations: pogroms.
The underlying basis of these attacks is Sharia, Islamic law, that mandates no synagogue or church can be built anew or repaired in lands (or, as we are starting to see in Europe, even urban neighborhoods) ruled by Islam. Why? Because the Sharia’s “tolerance” is merely a form of patience: let the non-Muslim places of worship crumble; those people will lose their religion, and eventually become Muslims.
Of course, such Sharia laws have often gone unenforced over the centuries, or were circumvented by bribes. That’s why there are still lots of churches despite the Sharia’s dictates. Why is today different? Not because Islam is eternal, unchanging, and inevitably oppressive. but precisely because a “modern” systematic ideology called Islamism insists that Sharia must be interpreted and enforced in a consistent, intransigent manner. And have no doubt that in an Egypt largely dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood those laws will be enforced. An actual Muslim individual can be flexible due to different interpretations, pragmatism, sloth, liberality, ineptitude, or venality; an Islamist Muslim cannot.
Now, the wall around the Israeli embassy, undefended by the police and security forces, fell to the assault. The mob’s minimal goal, a symbolic target or a preface to what they intend to do to Israel itself — was to tear down Israel’s flag. Americans know something about the significance of such situations. They even incorporated one into their national anthem:
“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
If the flag had come down over Fort McHenry, the British could perhaps have conquered America entirely, the treaty of recognition they had signed a quarter-century earlier might have been torn up. But Egypt is not at war with Israel. Under international law, the Egyptian authorities are responsible for defending the embassy but didn’t do so because that is unpopular with the mob. After the elections, the mob will be in charge.
As part of their attack on Israel’s embassy, the demonstrators broke pieces from the nearby statue “Egypt’s Awakening.” The symbolism is perfect. Egypt’s Awakening is equated with killing the Jews, yet it is in fact Egypt’s Awakening being sacrificed in the obsessive, ultimately suicidal, hatred against Israel.
According to Raymond Stock, who pointed out the statue’s role in the assault, an apparent secular liberal, who said that he had participated personally in the action, remarked on Facebook that he was glad this iconic work of art could serve the cause. Israel, he said, is my enemy, while the Muslim Brotherhood is a piece of cake — i.e., no obstacle to a democratic future. Revenge and blind hatred overwhelm even supposedly cool-headed, hi-tech Facebook types.
This reminds me of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 1857 Dred Scott case upholding the legality of slavery. The chief justice explained that those with black skin were “So far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Unfortunately, that is how Jews and Christian minorities are seen in Egypt and the other lands in the region: they have no rights that a Muslim or Arab is “bound to respect.” Those who make peace with Israel, and the agreements themselves, are by definition illegitimate, to be overturned as soon as possible, with any gains used legitimately to wipe Israel off the map. The land must always remain Muslim and Arab.
Such views are not completely inevitable but they are extraordinarily powerful. Moderate Arabs or Muslims can reject that view — as King Hussein of Jordan and Presidents Sadat and Mubarak did — but moderates nowadays are few in number and even fewer in power. And no matter what their pretense or Western gullibility, no populist regime or Islamist can defy the lynch mob.
As Egyptian mobs assault the walls protecting Christian churches and Israel’s embassy, the “international community” assaults the borders and policies protecting Israel. How can anyone still seriously claim that there will be a two-state solution, all strife will end, and everyone will live happily ever after? The dream of prosperity, social progress, peace, or better lives for one’s children — none of these things can withstand the demand for revenge, raw hatred, denial of any rights to the “other.” What you in the West think matters nothing — look with your eyes, listen with your ears, and see what the reality is.
Surely, it is best to have peace between timber men and apple-growers. Undoubtedly, it is wonderful to need no fences. But when things are otherwise, having bad neighbors do necessitate having good fences.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and Middle East editor and featured columnist at PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). GLORIA Center site is http://www.gloria-center.org.His articles published originally outside of PajamasMedia are at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com>