Analyzing the Turmoil [in Egypt]
by Yosef Rapaport
Translations of this item:
There are so-called experts trying to placate Western fears about the Muslim Brotherhood. Are they right, or is this something to fear?
It's something very dangerous to the United States and its allies. Islamists taking power in Egypt would change the balance of power in the Middle East. By way of background, there are two main alliances in the region. Tehran heads the so-called Resistance Bloc, with the governments of Turkey, Syria, and Qatar as partners, along with Hamas and Hizbullah. Riyadh heads the Status Quo bloc, with the governments of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, the Persian Gulf states — as well as the Palestinian Authority and, in the shadows, Israel.
Lebanon has just switched from the Status Quo to the Resistance Bloc. But Lebanon is a small country of some three to four million. Egypt is a country of some 80 million, the largest in the region. Its moving from one bloc to another would have large and highly-negative consequences.
Would you be on the side of those who argue that the United States is wrong by abandoning Mubarak in such a fashion?
No, Mubarak is an expensive and ugly ornament atop the power structure of Egypt. What happened in Tunisia is a model of what might — and I hope will — happen in Egypt. The security forces told Ben Ali, "You and your wife's corrupt family are too high-maintenance for us. Go!" And he did. Pretty much everyone else stayed in power.
Egypt is hardly a model of secular liberalism with separation of religion and state. But it's better by far than what the Muslim Brotherhood would bring in. This is a near-replication of what happened in the 1970s in Iran. No fan was I of the shah, but given a choice between him and Khomeini, he undoubtedly was far superior. The same goes vis-à-vis Mubarak and the Islamists. Were the Brotherhood to take over, I expect they would dominate as Khomeini did, and they would bring on a true revolution in Egyptian life, including the education system, the army, finances, foreign and security policy.
We hear a lot about 'dignity' and 'humiliation.' Why and how much of a role do these play in Muslim and Arab culture?
They're very important. Islam imbues Muslims with a profound sense of superiority to non-Muslims, and an assumption that the natural order has Muslims ruling non- Muslims. In the modern era, that has hardly been the case, especially a century ago when so many Muslims fell under European rule. Even today, whatever index you look at — power, wealth, creativity, or influence — non-Muslims are dominant. This is a source of deep discontent and frustration for Muslims, who see the world as upside down, and who find this an affront to their dignity as well as a humiliation.
There are those who argue that Mubarak should be treated with dignity and not be humiliated by those who want him out. Is that, too, something particular to Arab culture?
Yes, that is a subset of this. The notion of karama, dignity, is a very strong one, and the idea that Mubarak should be treated with dignity is important. Conversely, the fact that there is an arrest warrant for Ben Ali of Tunisia is a new, more freighted step for Tunisians than it would be for us. It is really turning the screw and saying, "We reject you." That is a humiliation — not only that he had to flee the country, but his former colleagues are going after him, his wife, and her family.
You mentioned Turkey, a complicated country, that has a basis in secularism, but a religious party rules it right now. Is there any way Islamism can coexist with democracy? Is there any model for that, in your view?
Islam is compatible with democracy but Islamism is not. It's like asking, are fascism and communism compatible with democracy? No.
Islamism is inherently antidemocratic. It demands that the sovereignty of G-d trumps the sovereignty of the popular will; that the sharia be applied, no matter what people think; that Muslims have a superior status to non-Muslims; that men enjoy superiority over women; and that violent jihad is a legitimate means of spreading Islam. These are the profoundly anti-democratic qualities of Islamism.
Years ago, Islamists denounced democracy as anti- Islamic — until they wised up and noticed, "Hey, we're popular. So why be anti-democratic?" They might as well exploit elections so they can get to power and then stay there indefinitely. In general, the further Islamists are from power, the more democratic-sounding they are; the more power they have, the less so.
Turkey is a most dangerous country because Turks have developed a very sophisticated version of Islamism that has won widespread popularity and is transforming the country, and has a potential for longevity that the Iranian version doesn't have. Islamism came to power in Iran through violence and revolution and rules in a quasi-totalitarian way. In Turkey, it is far more sophisticated, and therefore more dangerous.
Even if there would be no role for the Muslim Brotherhood, should there be a change in Cairo? We know that there is cooperation between Israel and Egypt on security measures. The first thing that comes to mind is the deep fence between Gaza and Egypt to prevent the tunneling, and it's all done without publicity. That is just one sign of how Israel works and has worked in the past with Egypt. Should there be a change of regime, and the government follows the popular will? I'm not talking about Islamists. Will Egypt still cooperate with Israel in fighting the extremists?
I agree with your premise that the more the Egyptian popular will is followed, the angrier the policy toward Israel will be. And should the Islamists take over, relations would be far worse, no question.
But I disagree with your view that the Mubarak government has been in a sense helpful or allied to Israel. I note the very illustration you gave: had the Egyptians cracked down on Hamas, there wouldn't be any tunnels whatsoever. Theirs is a sovereign state with a huge army and a vast security force. These tunnels could only have been allowed with Cairo's collusion.
I see these reports that term Egypt's government an "ally of Israel." No way. Gaza offers one example; others include the unremitting anti-Semitism of public life, the diplomatic mischief internationally, and the conventional military buildup. That buildup over the past 30 years, using American funds to buy American weapons, has been uniquely directed at Israel. Or would someone like to argue it's needed for Libya or the Sudan? It would be worse if the Islamists inherited this force, but Mubarak built it.
Could it be argued that Mubarak's suppression only inflamed the situation, and that change will inevitably come, and when it comes it will be worse for Israel?
It's a matter of skill and historical circumstances. There can be an Islamist takeover in Egypt, but it's not inevitable. I do hope that the military is competent enough to maintain power, and I hope that the new vice president, Omar Suleiman, succeeds Mubarak as the new ruler of Egypt.
Are you critical of Mr. Obama's handling of the situation?
Not particularly. It's a difficult situation, and telling Mubarak that he should go, while supporting the transition to Suleiman, while urging him to make reforms, amounts to the best policy I can see. That said, I would prefer stronger anti-Islamist vibes coming out of Washington. So I'm mixed. There's a soft spot for the Islamists that I rue, but a negativism toward Mubarak that I endorse.
One problem in countries like Egypt and Tunisia is that the government sees Islamism as a criminal activity, as a way to get power, as a way to fool the people. They don't respect it as a powerful ideology but deal with it with policemen, rather than battling it in the realm of ideas. I hope Suleiman brings less suppression and more engagement with the Islamist vision.
Do you think the Islamists should be allowed to express their feelings more, but they should be countered?
No, Islamists should not be allowed to express their views more. Quite the contrary: less. For example, the Egyptian government gave leading Islamists prime-time media spots; I wouldn't advise that. Again, the authorities see the problem as narrowly criminal: so long as Islamists aren't using violence, they're okay. That's a primitive understanding. Islamists are not just a military, security, or terror threat; they are also a social, political and religious threat.
So how do you prevent the Islamists from expressing their view without violence?
You don't hand them media programs but you do promote non-Islamist voices.
Do you have any predictions how this will work out?
I am relatively sanguine in that I expect the military to prevail in Egypt, and hopeful that Islamists will not take power there.
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