By Barry Rubin
The Washington Post continues to talk relatively sensibly about Middle East developments. And yet its latest editorial also shows the type of contortions necessary to avoid facing the awful truth of the situation in the region.
The editorial concludes:
Election results notwithstanding, it seems clear that the vast majority of Egyptians as well as Tunisians seek economic progress and respect for human rights, and not a theocracy. Secular citizens and minorities, who make up a large part of the population, will not accept discrimination. Islamic movements will succeed in government, and retain their following, only if they recognize those realities.
Really? Let’s consider this text, as it reveals precisely how the Obama administration and the conventional wisdom in the U.S. policy establishment think about these issues:
“Election results notwithstanding, it seems clear that the vast majority of Egyptians as well as Tunisians seek economic progress and respect for human rights, and not a theocracy.”
Then why did they vote so much for radical Islamist parties? I know that one can consult some polls to say that the people’s main concern is economic betterment, but that also requires ignoring other polls where they show enthusiastic support for Sharia.
Moreover, the case can be made that they think Islamists will do a better job of managing the economy for various reasons, including the (probably true) assumption that they are less corrupt, belief that they will follow populist policies that will more directly benefit the masses (even though these policies will also lead to economic disaster), belief that they will impose order through repression (less crime when you cut off limbs), and expectation that they will bring a higher degree of equality and social justice.
As for “respect for human rights,” does this mean that they advocate equality for women and Christians; think people should have the freedom of speech to criticize Islam or even to offer interpretations of Islam contrary to those of the most powerful (and radical) clerics? This is a fantasy, based on the belief that Middle Eastern Muslims — once one gets beyond clothes, food, and customs — think just like Americans.
Would we have been told in 1952, in words similar to what the Post now says about Tunisia and Egypt, that most Arabs didn’t support radical Arab nationalism but really wanted democracy and human rights instead?
Of course, I should quickly add that in Tunisia, in contrast to Egypt, 60 percent did not vote for the Islamist party. Unfortunately, they split their vote among too many parties. But a large determined, militant, ideologically consistent, and organized minority can impose its will.
“Secular citizens and minorities, who make up a large part of the population, will not accept discrimination.”
Consider how that sentence could have been written to apply to Iran’s 1979 revolution! And how large a part of the population are we talking about here? In Egypt, charitably, we are talking about 20 percent of the people. And they will have to accept discrimination or be killed, beaten, or imprisoned. The only other alternative is to leave the country. As for Tunisia, it has more secularist-oriented Muslims than Egypt but no significant minority group.
Most dangerous is this sentence:
“Islamic movements will succeed in government, and retain their following, only if they recognize those realities.”
What nonsense. This implies that unless the Islamic movements become more moderate they will lose their supporters and fall from power. Have the editors of the Washington Post never heard of repression? Of using demagoguery and foreign adventures to mobilize the masses? Of the creative use of anti-Americanism and hatred for Israel and Jews? The monopolization of the media and other institutions to buy opportunists, intimidate potential dissidents, and rally hysterical support?
I can well imagine the Post writing an editorial about the 1917 Communist revolution in Russia like this:
The Bolsheviks will succeed in government, and retain their following, only if they recognize those realities.
Tell that to Lenin and Stalin!
Look at Iran, where the regime faces a far worse situation than do the Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, the Gaza Strip, Turkey, or Lebanon. Arguably, the majority of the population opposed the regime whose policies have led to serious economic pressure, and yet the government continues extremist policies, stealing elections, and repression.
So in 1979 we might have read (indeed, I think I remember reading it back then):
The Iranian Islamists will succeed in government, and retain their following, only if they recognize those realities.
In the rest of the editorial, the Post rightly says that it has more hopes of moderation from the Tunisian Islamist regime than from its Egyptian counterpart. But why is that? Because the Islamists control over Tunisia is far weaker, that’s all. And even the promises of the Tunisians not to impose Sharia should be taken with suspicion. They are in a coalition now but what will happen when they become more entrenched in power? To be fair, the Post does point out some evidence showing the Brotherhood cannot be trusted. But it concludes:
Both Islamic movements deserve some benefit of the doubt.
They have won free and fair elections, sought to strike deals with
secular opponents and are reaching out to Washington.
That’s generous but quite shocking. Three points are cited in favor of the “moderation” thesis:
- “Won free and fair elections.” But how does this make them “deserve
some benefit of the doubt”? This is only true if one assumes — as much
of the Western elite does — that merely running in elections proves one
is moderate (wrong); that the voters would never support extremists
because they really want economic progress (can’t they believe theocracy
will produce that, or at least more social justice?) and respect for
human rights (but they might define human rights in a manner consistent
- “Sought to strike deals with secular opponents.” Actually, the
Brotherhood has not really done that at all (though they have made
arrangements with small satellite parties when it suited their
interests). And the Tunisian Islamists did so because they needed deals
to get a majority in parliament! That doesn’t reflect moderation but
merely the desire to gain power!
- “Are reaching out to Washington.” Well, they’d have to be very
stupid revolutionary extremists not to do so! In Arabic, the Brotherhood
screams out anti-Americanism each day. It supports claims that the
United States is trying to subvert the revolution and backed putting
Americans on trial for espionage. For goodness sakes, this is a party
whose leader openly calls for jihad against America and the destruction
of all U.S. interests in the Middle East!
And this is the Washington Post, decidedly the most realistic of the mass media, general news outlets! How is it better? The Post says that the Brotherhood may be moderate; its colleagues insist that the moderation of the revolutionary Islamists is a proven fact.
What happened regarding the visit of the two Muslim Brotherhood delegations is that they lied about their actions, goals, and views. How should the mass media and research centers have responded? By providing long lists of positions and statements that totally contradicted these soothing falsehoods. It is a very easy task, especially for those who are well-funded and have teams of researchers, reporters, and interns that merely need to collect available quotes from the Egyptian media, look at the Brotherhood’s sites in Arabic, and use available translations. Nothing of the sort happened.
Apparently, the only party the current Washington policymaking elite is willing to claim advocates hate, violence, and the suppression of women’s rights is the Republican Party!
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International
Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of
International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.
Other recent books include 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). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.