Police Inspector Praline (investigating health claims against a candy company): ”What’s this one, ‘Spring Surprise’?”
Milton (owner of Whizzo Chocolate Company): “Ah–now, that’s our specialty! It’s covered with darkest creamy chocolate. When you pop it in your mouth steel bolts spring out and plunge straight through both cheeks.”
–Monty Python’s Flying Circus “Crunchy Frog” sketch
by Barry Rubin
Consider the statement of an Egyptian anchorman (Sayyed Ali) on a television station (al-Mehwar). He isn’t an important person nor is his channel a big one. But it’s a normative piece of contemporary Arab political rhetoric. Thank MEMRI for videoing and translating and give them a donation. He begins:
The Egypt of today is very different from the Egypt of before January 25.
The Western narrative sees Egypt, Yemen, or Libya as akin to Central Europe’s rebellions: inoculated against dictatorship by harsh experience; eager to smell liberty’s sweet air. In Central Europe, though, nationalism meant cultural revival and freedom from (real) Soviet domination; religion signified the ability to go to church without punishment.
For Egypt, though, authenticity, not liberty, is the key concept. In the mainstream view, it wasn’t so much that President Husni Mubarak’s regime stopped people from enjoying private property or free speech but that it stopped Egypt from being Egypt. After all, there’s no real chance of getting rich; no money for nice housing; no prospect for lots of jobs; no resources for a strong industrial base. The only hope is to be virtuous, display pride, and jealously guard one’s honor through nationalist assertion; morality through religious piety.
And thus the definition of the proper Egypt, held by 90 percent of the Sunni Muslim population, is that of a highly religious, highly nationalistic country that has a chip on its shoulder toward the West. We are talking about a revolution leading to more — not less — extremism and enforced conformity.
Western democratic revolutions were rebellions against tradition. In practice, the revolution in Egypt — like the 1979 Iranian revolution — is a revolution for tradition. It might be better called a counterrevolution against modernity. Sure, there are 10, 20, and perhaps even 30 percent of Egyptians who want a more pragmatic, moderate state. But that’s precisely the point: in a democratic vote they will lose.
Today, if you asked 86 million Egyptians if they would be willing to fight and be martyred for the sake of their honor, not one would hesitate….Egypt in its entirety…is ready to be martyred [to avenge] the blood of the Egyptian martyrs.
That’s rhetorical exaggeration, of course, and one shouldn’t believe literally that Egypt will launch a suicidal war, but this kind of talk will be standard as to what Egypt (and Arabs and Muslims) ought to do if they behaved properly. Even most of the “moderates” talk that way, like the April 6 Youth Movement leader (i.e., Facebook Kid), who explained that Egyptians cannot stand passively by while “genocide” is committed by Israel against the Palestinians next door. This kind of thing is already standard Palestinian rhetoric, both under Fatah and Hamas. The result is to make real peace impossible even if it doesn’t make war inevitable.
Egypt’s revolution is thus also against pragmatism, which is seen as immoral. That’s what the “evil” Mubarak did, and President Anwar al-Sadat did before him. Pragmatism dictates that if you cannot defeat foreigners, you must accommodate to them. Yet pragmatism — starting with an honest view of reality; doing what works; avoiding what doesn’t; not being mired down into an ideological preconception or romantic martyrdom fantasy overriding results and experience — is the very foundation of Western success.
Israel kicked up a fuss over an insignificant soldier called Gilad Shalit. Israel invaded Lebanon, killing and humiliating people, because of another insignificant Israeli soldier.
Actually, in the case of Lebanon it was three soldiers. Yet this kind of narrative misses a key point. The Israeli approach, like the American approach, derives from placing a high value on the individual. Freedom and democracy must begin with the exaltation of individual rights, though of course within a wider social context.
In contrast, the dominant Arab and Muslim-majority society narrative (which corresponds to traditional, pre-democratic Western ones) is the exaltation of the state and “race”: “Egyptian blood will never be cheap.” There is no focus on the specific soldiers killed (“Gilad Shalit” versus “Egyptian blood”) and certainly not on the context of events.
Evidence and facts are not important in that anti-pragmatic worldview. Gilad Shalit was kidnapped from Israeli soil by a Hamas operation aiming to grab a soldier. The three Israelis were patrolling in Israel along the border with Lebanon. They were kidnapped (and probably killed) by an operation deliberately designed to do so.
In the Egyptian case, the soldiers were killed accidentally because an Israeli helicopter pilot thought they were terrorists who had just attacked Israeli civilians and murdered seven people. And why did he think that? Because the terrorists had come from Egypt and were wearing Egyptian army uniforms.
This indifference to the difference between a regrettable but understandable mistake and deliberate acts of aggression and terrorism means that the West and the Arab world are speaking different languages, and not just in the obvious sense of that word.
There is also an important difference between reprisal and revenge. A reprisal is a carefully formulated effort to reduce a threat in the future. A reprisal against a terrorist attack is a limited action seeking to ensure there won’t be more terrorist attacks. Revenge, however, is an endless process whose goal is to make those hitting their adversaries feel better.
Things will not be as they were before. No more negotiations, no more bargaining, no more subservience to the U.S., and no more of the accursed U.S. aid, which makes the blood of 86 million Egyptian cheap.
Intransigence is portrayed as the highest virtue, the proper solution. In the hysteria whipped up — and we have seen this several times in history — the Arab discourse can persuade people that a heroic victory is possible even where the balance of forces shows a disastrous defeat to be far more likely. Foreign aid that could be used to develop and raise living standards is instead seen as humiliating chains of slavery. The money is used not productively but to buy off the masses with subsidies and the elite with loot. Thus, too, the West gains no gratitude from its massive aid to Egyptians or Palestinians since aid is seen as both mandatory reparations and subversive imperialism.
Ali says that Egyptians are “demanding” that Israel’s ambassador be expelled, “and that the Israeli flag be removed and replaced by the Palestinian flag, as Iran did in the past.”
The peace treaty with Israel should be thrown out and only Palestine recognized — no two-state solution here. There is no regard for the benefits brought to Egypt by the peace treaty with Israel. It would be too dangerous for anyone in Egypt to recall in public the return of the Sinai, the opening of the Suez Canal and oilfields, the benefits of the U.S. alliance and aid.
Israel and the U.S. must know that the Egyptian people has been freed from subservience to them.
The main complaint about the Mubarak government is not its handling of the economy, or denial of equality to women, or stand on gay rights or abortion, or kowtowing to religious fundamentalists, but its alleged subservience to Zionist-imperialist domination.
Post-Mubarak governments will go out of their way to prove they defy such influences. That will not be good for Western interests or regional peace and stability.
Yet Islamists in Sinai who called for “the establishment of the Islamic Emirate there are trying to take Sinai away from us….[Israel] want[s] to transfer the Palestinians to Sinai, creating facts on the ground,” said Ali.
Crazy conspiracy theories, always a major feature of Egyptian (and Arab) discourse, are now in the mainstream and may soon direct state policy. You don’t criticize rivals by saying they wouldn’t manage the economy well but by accusing them of being Zionist agents — not a good omen for democracy, tolerance, and compromise inside Egypt.
The broader problem is that the Obamas of the West aren’t listening to the Sayyed Alis of the East. Obama thinks that the bad old era is over, with the overthrow of evil pro-American dictatorships and the dawn of a new democratic age:
Too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills….Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression. Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else. But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore. –President Barack Hussein Obama, May 2011
Yet tens of millions of Arabs and Muslims have a different view:
No more negotiations, no more bargaining, no more subservience to the U.S., and no more of the accursed U.S. aid, which makes the blood of 86 million Egyptian cheap.—Sayyed Ali, August 2011.
Obama hears, “We want freedom and peace! Democracy is the solution!” The dominant voices in much of the Middle East are saying, “Down with America! Kill the Jews! Islam (or militant nationalism) is the solution!” The voices in the Middle East will keep getting louder until someone in the West starts listening.
Or, as Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota, once put it: “There’s a battle outside raging. It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls….You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.”
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.gloria-center.org