by Barry Rubin
“I just can’t do what I done before/I just can’t beg you anymore/I’m gonna let you pass/And I’ll go last/Then time will tell just who fell/And who’s been left behind/When you go your way and I go mine.”
–Bob Dylan, “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”
Muhammad al-Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, has become president of Egypt. But what does it mean to be president of Egypt? That’s the current question. Let me divide the discussion into two parts: What does this tell about “us” and what does this tell about Egypt and its future?
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First, what does it tell about the West? The answer is that there are things that can be learned and understood, leading to some predictive power, but unfortunately the current hegemonic elite and its worldview refuse to learn.
Here’s the New York Times passing on what administration officials told its reporters: “The Obama administration, expressing relief on Sunday that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate will be Egypt’s next president, voiced cautious optimism that the choice could keep the country’s rocky transition to democracy on track.” So we should be happy the Brotherhood won? I guess this means that if they lost the Brotherhood might riot, turn to violence, and Egypt’s democratic experiment would have failed. Now, however, we supposedly can feel okay because the Brotherhood will impose an anti-American Sharia state based on majority rule? So, apparently, the U.S. government is on the Muslim Brotherhood’s side.
What could be more revealing than the words off Jacqueline Stevens in the New York Times: “Chimps randomly throwing darts at the possible outcomes would have done almost as well as the experts”? Well, it depends on which experts. Martin Kramer, one of those who was right all along about Egypt, has a choice selection of quotes from a certain kind of Middle East expert who was dead wrong. A near-infinite number of such quotes can be gathered from the pages of America’s most august newspapers.
These people all share the current left-wing ideology; the refusal to understand the menace of revolutionary Islamism; the general belief that President Barack Obama is doing a great job; and the tendency to blame either Israel or America for the region’s problems. So if a big mistake has been made, it is that approach that has proven to be in the chimp category.
Having written about the Middle East for almost forty years, I’ve seen the power of the “chimps” that repeatedly make the same mistakes over and over again. Their power has waxed and waned, falling to the lowest points, for example, just after the 1991 Kuwait war and just after September 11, 2001. But they keep making comebacks and in the last two years their influence has been at an all-time high.
In early October 2010 I wrote an article based on actually reading what the Muslim Brotherhood leaders were saying. It was titled “The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is Declaring Jihad on America; Will Anyone in America Notice?” And they were signaling a change in their traditionally cautious strategy to go for revolution. Why? They told us: President Husni Mubarak was on his last legs, the regime seemed vulnerable to being overthown, America was weak, and their assessment was that the revolutionary Islamist forces were advancing everywhere.
By the time the uprising broke out, in January 2011, numerous voices were raised in warning. If the mainstream were to be honest, it would have to admit that those voices included Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck.
[Incidentally, imagine the anger, the hatred, and the gnashing of teeth that will occur in response to the previous sentence. Yet aren’t people engaged in public debate–especially intellectuals, and that includes liberal intellectuals–supposed to acknowledge the truth? Who refuses to give credit for those, even opponents, who are right? Who refuses to learn from their own mistakes? Not real liberals or conservatives, but ideologically rigid radicals.]
None of these people were experts but they listened to the better experts, at times went over the heads of the mass media to look at what the Brotherhood really said, and also had a basic sense of reality that guided them correctly on this issue. Equally accurate was every article written on the subject in PJ Media. To admit this, however, would require the hegemonic forces to accept that these people who were being demonized and despised might be right on other issues as well.
Meanwhile, the New York Times correspondent is still telling readers:
“…many in the West have a lot of mistaken impressions about the Brotherhood. It is at its base a religious revival group committed to a bottom-up and gradual approach to moving the culture in a more Islamic direction. Their platform carefully avoids any hint of restrictions on personal behavior or liberties. Rather, it seems to suggest the Brotherhood would try to nudge Egyptian culture in a more conservative direction by public and private example. For instance, the Brotherhood would not restrict the content of films but it might subsidize films that expressed traditional Islamic values. And it would allow Islamic charities and religious groups more freedom to spread their own messages.
“Its leaders are not clerics or religious scholars. Almost all have advanced degrees in medicine or the natural sciences. (Mohamed Morsi, the presidential candidate, got his PhD in materials engineering at the University of Southern California.) They are politicians. Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood played a growing role as an elected bloc of the Parliament, and unlike the ruling party its lawmakers acted like real politicians — they sought the views of their constituents, studied the issues and introduced legislation, and over time moved toward the middle. They are committed to democratic elections and the peaceful rotation of political power, which usually means moving to the middle.”
Actually, the Brotherhood’s leader is a cleric and who cares about the degrees other leaders received–Hamas leaders include all sorts of professionals–degrees that did not require them to learn anything about Western humanities or social sciences? Moreover, it is completely false to say they were moderate in Mubarak’s parliament. See here on that point and also here, two articles that explained how the Brotherhood was radical and likely to take over Egypt written in 2006 in my MERIA Journal by Egyptian authors.
But to say that nothing has been learned by the “best and brightest,” here’s the same New York Times reporter writing on Libya:
“In an unfolding contest here over the future of the Islamist movement, Mr. Hasadi’s vision of peaceful change appears ascendant. For the West, his success may represent the greatest promise of the Arab Spring, that political participation could neutralize the militant strand of Islam that has called thousands to fight and die in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.”
So the New York Times thinks that Hasadi is a man advocating “peaceful change” who the West should support. Regarding Hasadi, here’s what I wrote nine months ago:
“According to Al Jazeera…Abdul al-Hakim al-Hasad…was formerly head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an al-Qaeda affiliate….The group was still designated as terrorist by the U.S. government. Here it is on the terrorism list (number 26, in alphabetical order) released by the State Department last May.”
So what evidence is there that he’s changed his views? None that I’m aware of. Do the words–which also apply to Syria–”here we go again” occur to anyone?
If we assess honestly what has happened, it would require us to conclude that the aggressiveness of revolutionary Islamism and the weakness of the U.S. response to this challenge have been the principal problems in the Middle East and must be addressed seriously or things will get steadily worse, more violent, and more oppressive. Yet if we are all equally “chimps,” one can ignore all of the lessons of the last eighteen months and, thus, continue to make more terrible errors in the months to come.
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But what should we make specifically of this most recent event, the certification of al-Mursi’s victory? Certainly, it is another step forward for the Brotherhood toward capturing the most important Arab country. A confident Hamas (which has now officially joined the Muslim Brotherhood’s international network) has launched a war against Israel by firing dozens of cross-border rockets from the Gaza Strip and other means which the “international community” and democratic West are ignoring, to set one more terrible precedent in the war—one-sided as far as they’re concerned—with revolutionary Islamism.
Even now the “chimps” refuse to acknowledge the extremism of the Brotherhood, the most significant anti-American, antisemitic group in the entire world today. They ignore the fully documented fact that al-Mursi campaigned on a basis of hatred for America, fundamentally transforming Egypt into a Sharia state, going to war with Israel, and spreading revolution throughout the region. At this very moment, for example, the U.S. government is supporting a Brotherhood-led puppet group as the leadership of the Syrian uprising and arming its forces.
Yet within Egypt itself the outcome is not clear at all. There are as many options as there are rumors in Cairo. Remember that there is no Egyptian constitution, no parliament, and no timetable for electing a new parliament. The powers of the president are not defined.
So al-Mursi is going to govern the country or, which seems more likely, the rulers will continue to be the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and al-Mursi will be a figurehead. It seems likely that this situation will prevail for at least one year. Will the military make some deal with al-Mursi and the Brotherhood which trades limited power for accepting limits on their power? Here’s an article by Eric Trager, who has also consistently been right on Egypt, writing about how hard-line al-Mursi is personally and the likelihood he will follow the instructions of the Brotherhood’s jihadist supreme guide, al-Badi, in his decision-making.
Will, as seems less likely, the Brotherhood embark on a campaign of armed resistance or, more probably, just continue demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo? Here we can see the difference between all of the nonsense spoken in 2011 and reality. If the army wants a “revolution,” there will be a “revolution”; if the army wants to resist, then it will remain in power. It is important to note, however, that the Salafist groups will not take this lying down. There will be a lot of violence.
Finally, there is a question of Western policy toward Egypt. What should happen is realpolitik, survival response. The military is saving Egypt from catastrophe. That doesn’t mean its rule is wonderful, democratic, or terribly competent. The army is not going to solve Egypt’s problems, but neither is anyone else.
Yet probably what will happen is that the U.S. government will condemn on some level the military, stamp its foot ineffectively, and spout words like “turnover of power,” “transparency,” “rapid action,” and so on. In effect, of course, they are insisting that Egypt be turned into a totalitarian state, the sooner the better.
Of course, the Brotherhood did win the election—three elections in fact, upper and lower house of parliament as well as the presidency—and so if that is one’s sole criterion then they should take power, just as Hamas and Hizballah won elections. It is time, though, to start thinking of U.S. interests.
It is also worth noting that what one could call the Islamist vote sank from almost 75 percent in the parliamentary elections to 52 percent in the presidential ones. Perhaps the military calculates that in a year the support for revolutionary Islamism might be still high but not a majority. We will have to follow the events in Egypt closely. It is advisable to start listening to the non-chimps and their analysis so that the West, and the United States in particular, don’t end up as chumps.
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 is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog,