By Barry Rubin
Sigh. Forgive me. I really don’t want to write this article but it is too good a case study of the contemporary Western foreign policy reporting, debate, and elite attitudes toward international affairs. And doing a better job is vital because this task involves the fate of millions of people; matters of war and peace; the most basic interests of the United States; and the decency of intellectual discourse.
I refer of course to:
Thomas L. Friedman’s latest effort, “The Belly Dancing Barometer.” Hey, tens of millions of lives are at stake so that’s worth a flippant title and a goofy concept, right?
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“Since the start of the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square, every time the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood faced a choice of whether to behave in an inclusive way or grab more power, true to its Bolshevik tendencies it grabbed more power and sacrificed inclusion. [President] Morsi’s power grab will haunt him.
“The Brotherhood needs to understand that its version of political Islam – which is resistant to women’s empowerment and religious and political pluralism – might be sustainable if you are Iran or Saudi Arabia, and you have huge reserves of oil and gas to buy off all the contradictions between your ideology and economic growth. But if you are Egypt, you need to be as open to the world and modernity as possible to unleash all of the potential for growth.” (New York Times)
So let me get this straight. Friedman is saying that you cannot trust the Brotherhood, it seeks total power and is antidemocratic. Hmm, What’s he been saying the last two years? He’s been an apologist for the Brotherhood, a cheerleader for the course taken by the “Arab Spring,” and has constantly insisted that the democratic revolution is going well.
Indeed, in January 2012 I wrote an analysis of Friedman’s coverage entitled, “Friedman Cheers as Egyptians are Enslaved.” Now that it’s too late he is supposedly outraged to see what’s going on there.
Now he concludes that the Egyptian regime is not democratic at all but then draws no conclusion about how U.S. policy should change to adjust for his discovery? Does Friedman now favor, as he hints in the article, using real pressure on Egypt if the regime continues to be repressive at home? Will he criticize Obama for not doing so?
But if Mursi [I’ll stick with my transliteration] has “Bolshevik tendencies” might that not also lead to his doing something nasty to U.S. interests?
It’s like identifying a mass murderer and then saying, “Do you really think you can get away with this without a vast criminal organization behind you?” rather than yelling, “Help, police! There’s a mass murderer over there!”
And then on top of that he uses the “needs to understand” phrase so beloved of newspaper editorialists but totally absurd in dealing with dictators. Well, what if they don’t understand? How about saying:
Herr Hitler needs to understand that he cannot conquer the whole world. Germany lacks the economic base to do so.
And do we now believe in economic determinism? Was the USSR sustainable? Can you imagine someone writing this in 1917 to the Bolsheviks?
Mr. Lenin needs to understand that the Soviet Union [yes, I know it wasn’t founded until several years later but I’m trying to make a point here–BR] should abandon its Bolshevik tendencies because it will never work out.
Sure the Soviet Union failed but it took almost 75 years and there were tens of millions dead as a result.
And since when did a Middle Eastern radical dictatorship (even one that was elected) put economic pragmatism ahead of seeking its goals: the PLO or Palestinian Authority, Saddam Hussein? Gamal Abdel Nasser? I don’t remember the Iranian government dropping the nuclear weapons’ program because of economic sanctions.
Arguably, one such leader did bow to economic necessity to moderate. His name was Anwar al-Sadat and now his regime–under Sadat’s successor, Mubarak–is the villain for America and the West.
Note that Friedman never says: President Obama needs to understand that he cannot trust this Muslim Brotherhood regime, should see it as a threat to U.S. interests, and must work to undermine it.
Moreover, is Friedman correct and Mursi wrong? Is the world really going to cut off the money to Egypt if it keeps getting more Islamist? Will the US insist the IMF stop aiding the Egyptian regime or even stop sending it free weapons?
Aide: President Obama! The Muslim Brotherhood is grabbing more power and not being inclusionary!
Obama: Jumping Saul Alinsky! We must cut off aid at once! Then he’ll learn that he must be open to the world in order to unleash Egypt’s potential for growth!
But wait! Egypt doesn’t have a potential for economic growth! It isn’t going to happen. The country has too many people and not enough resources. What if Mursi knows that Egypt isn’t going to be the new China, with shining cities of high rises, factories pumping out consumer durables for export, and so on?
If he knows that there is no real chance for economic prosperity maybe that is why he follows the policies he does! Might it be that Mursi knows more about Egypt than Friedman or even Obama?
Perhaps Mursi could intimidate or blackmail those with oil and gas, as his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser did. And, after all, the Arab nationalists faced precisely the same problem as Mursi does and yet stayed in office for 60 years. Yes, they had the USSR but that hardly gave a lot of economic aid. Why can’t the Islamists run Egypt for the next 60 years?
Or perhaps you can imagine this scene:
Aide: President Mursi! We must abandon Islamism! We can’t afford it!
Mursi: Oh well, I guess the IMF is more important than Allah. Mu-ha-ha! Just kidding.
If you know anything about societies like Egypt, you would understand that these societies have a lot of flexibility. People can get along with far less than in the West and be a lot more passive in the face of suffering because that’s the way they always had to live. This is a largely agricultural society. Some can go back to the villages, or be sustained by extended families, or tighten their belts. They have low expectations.
And the “Arab Spring” has not changed that fact. At least for a majority. What proportion of the Egyptian public lparticipated in those romanticized events before the Mubarak regime was overthrown in 2011? Say, 100,000 out of a population of 70 million? And many of them were Muslim Brotherhood cadre.
The Egyptian people also know they face repression and they have a deeply embedded ideology to comfort them and drive them onward. And why are they so poor and miserable? It’s not Mursi but America, the West, Israel, and now even the Saudis blamed for their suffering.
Obviously, not everyone is going to believe this but enough will–or get bopped upside the head–to keep the regime in power. Wait until you see what’s going to happen in Syria as a new dictatorship takes control there as well.
The one ray of hope in Egypt is that there are now four Islamist parties (Brotherhood, “moderates,” radical Salafi, “moderate” (i.e., pro-regime) Salafi. If the democratic opposition wasn’t led by such a bunch of quarreling incompetent egomaniac politicians there might actually be some hope of defeating Islamists in the parliamentary elections due in a few months.
This is all a tragedy for the poor victims in the Middle East and a farce for the well-paid, much-honored careerist opportunists and ideologues in the West.
What’s so frustrating about this mess is that not only are the policies so bad, and not only is the permitted debate so narrow, but that these people don’t even try to come up with logical arguments because they know they can get away with any old trash and still get applauded.
Oh, something very dramatic is about to happen in Egypt but quite different from what pretty much everyone expects. I’ll cover that in my next article on that country.
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 latest 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.