Thursday, February 3, 2011

Egypt: An Interview About Why I'm Rarely Interviewed

By Barry Rubin

I was asked to give an interview on Egypt and am always happy to talk with journalists actually interested in my analysis. But there's one point I want to share with you here since it deals with broader issues. I quote it below with some improvements:

Are you getting grief for being a contrarian?

An interesting question. Let me answer it in detail. Nowadays there is no real public debate on such issues as there once was. I can write things that, say, 40,000 people will see while the message that everything’s fine and the Muslim Brotherhood is really moderate will reach tens of millions. And the fact that those advocating this position can offer no proof--and don't mention the proof that disproves their view--isn't even noticed.

The mass media generally take a point of view and anything contradicting it is largely excluded. Indeed, those with the hegemonic standpoint don’t even read alternative positions. In this atmosphere they certainly don’t need to construct strong arguments in order to try to refute criticisms since their readers or viewers will probably never hear the criticisms.

This paragraph from a Washington Post op-ed by the powerful George Soros, bankroller for anti-Americana, proves my point:

"Some have articulated fears of adverse consequences of free elections, suggesting that the Egyptian military may seek to falsify the results; that Israel may be adamantly opposed to a regime change; that the domino effect of extremist politics spreading to other countries must be avoided; and that the supply of oil from the region could be disrupted. These notions constitute the old conventional wisdom about the Middle East - and need to be changed, lest Washington incorrectly put up resistance to or hesitate in supporting transition in Egypt."

Just think of that! This is "old conventional wisdom" and we must get rid of it lest it get in the way. Well, look, there is no chance Washington won't support transition. Obama is president. He has a policy. Nothing anyone says is going to change that policy.

But aren't we even allowed to talk about these things? Think of the logic of this paragraph (leaving aside the silly point about Israel): we must change our analysis so the United States can follow the proper policy. Isn't policy supposed to arise out of correct analysis? 

Or more bluntly: Shut up with your facts! You're getting in the way of doing the right thing! You're raining on our parade!

Might this "old conventional wisdom" be right since it has been right the last half-dozen times.

Given this lack of competition and the closed minds involved, their arguments become very flimsy and full of obvious errors that nobody points out. In short, there is no great incentive to criticize someone like me unless it furthers the liberal-conservative partisan struggle, which isn’t really involved in this issue.

My situation is rather ironic because I have been a strong defender of reform-minded elements many of whom are friends, and wrote a book, The Long War for Freedom, about this battle. In the book, though, I pointed out the very uphill struggle for these courageous people. Despite their apparent—and in Middle East terms rather easy victory—in Egypt these roadblocks have not disappeared.

But I strongly hope I am wrong about Egypt. Nothing would make me happier than to say—and I wouldn’t hesitate to do so—that I was wrong.

Egypt is also not the same as other Arab countries. Each country is different. I am enthusiastic about the events in Tunisia and I believe that country will make a transition to democracy because the Islamists are weak while the moderate middle class is relatively strong there, while external issues play a far smaller role than in Egypt. I also believe that Lebanon, for instance, has great prospects for democratic movements. But the one they have produced, the March 14 coalition, has been defeated, in part due to a lack of Western support compared to Iran-Syria interference against them.

Iran also has a very strong democratic movement with widespread support, inoculated from future folly by three decades of Islamist rule. And where were all the Western lovers of democracy when they were being crushed?

On the other hand, I think a crisis like Egypt’s would be even worse in Jordan since many of the “moderates” are really radicals and the Muslim Brotherhood is strong there.

Then there was my experience as a close observer of the Iranian revolution, to which this situation has more parallels than people realize because they don’t remember what happened in Iran. They think that the Islamists were always in control and the fact that Egypt’s movement is spontaneous and not led by one group proves it is different. But that is precisely what happened in Iran for many months in 1978.

I also watched the Palestinian situation where the regime went to free elections. In the election some people wanted Islamism, others protested against the regime by voting for Hamas and we see the result.

In the West, I see two main groups--obviously not everyone--among those so vocally and uncritically optimistic about Egypt. There are those who really know nothing about Middle East politics and societies who have suddenly proclaimed themselves experts and say the silliest things.

And there are a lot of professionals who in many—not all—cases have been supportive of anti-American forces and Islamists. One wonders whether they are speaking as they do because they really don’t think radicals will take power in Egypt or rather because they do expect this outcome and want that to happen. In other words, they are more anti-American than they are pro-Egyptian.

I have followed the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for thirty years or more. When I read the leader saying that he declares Jihad against America, then see people proclaim the Brotherhood as moderate, totally unaware of what it has said and done, It convinces me that I must speak out against the danger. I would be much less vocal if I saw people saying, “Yes, there is a real danger of a radical regime or an Islamist takeover but we are trying to prevent that from happening.” The naivete is dangerous.

I also have seen many of the people proclaiming there is nothing to worry about now who have been wrong over and over again in the past. They were wrong about the Iranian revolution, the PLO, Hizballah in Lebanon, the Turkish regime, Hamas, Algeria, al-Qaida, and much more. A few days before the September 11 attack an article came out in a magazine criticizing me for warning of the threat from revolutionary Islamist terrorist groups saying that this was a fantasy. Now, a decade after September 11, we are back at the same point!

And finally, another ignored or misunderstood factor is the regional situation. On one hand, I constantly hear from Arabs, Turks, Iranians, as well as Israelis and people from other countries, that they have lost faith in the United States as a reliable ally. Have no doubt, this will further undermine that feeling. Those who can are moving toward making deals with Iran or at least avoiding conflict with those they think are destined to be victorious.

On the other hand, anti-American forces—Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, the Muslim Brotherhoods, al-Qaida, and others—are very happy, arguing that the United States is losing and they are winning.

Now, if events demoralize your friends and make your foes more aggressive, isn’t that a problem? And shouldn’t that be warned about? .

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