Monday, March 7, 2011

Arab Liberals Worry About an Islamist Egypt; Western Observers Claim There's No Threat

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By Barry Rubin

He jests at scars who never felt the wound, wrote Shakespeare, and it is an appropriate sentiment to point out that while Western observers ridicule the fear of an Islamist Egypt, a lot of Arab writers are very worried. In fact, here are three articles that display such concerns.

The first is from Dr. Hasan Abu Talib, "The Muslim Brotherhood and the Revolution of the Youths" in the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, February 23. Describing his own participation in the revolution, he points out that those who organized it had nothing to do with either the Muslim Brotherhood or Muhammad ElBaradei’s National Association for Change.

But now he is having doubts as he sees the revolution being funneled by the Brotherhood in the direction that it wants and without regard to majority rule, hinting at “imposing matters by force of the fait accompli, and elimination of those who differ in opinion and inclination.”

Despite the Brotherhood’s promises—and unlike such irresponsible fools as Peter Beinart who are ready to take the Brotherhood at its (English-only, not Arabic) word, Abu Talib writes:

“These statements conflict with the established realities in the world of politics which never recognize verbal guarantees as they can never be taken to account later….The Brotherhood denials in turn raise doubts and are a source of major concern for all Egyptians. Perhaps the experience of Algeria where the [Islamic] Salvation group won in the elections at the end of 1990 and this was followed by a decade of violence, civil war and sufficient to raise worries among many Egyptians that their rising country should witness something similar. There is big fear that the coming parliamentary elections can be a prelude to a religious State, not a civil State, especially in the light of the weakness and fragility of the existing political parties. There are fears that these would be the first and last clean elections that revolutionary Egypt would witness.”

He also worries that alternative forces will not become properly organized, develop an ideology of their own, “and attract large numbers of members.” He urges them to work hard to create “a new Egypt that believes in freedom, dignity, and human rights--in a renewable democracy that is not open to retreat or to forcible disappearance.”

In Al-Hayah Online, published in London, February 20, Dawud al-Sharayan, like Abu Talib, points out that the exclusion of Google executive and symbol of Facebook democratic youth Wa’il Ghunaym from the platform at Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s million-plus victory rally is a dangerous symbol. To my knowledge the American mass media has not even reported that this happened!

Sharayan writes:

“It seems that [the Brotherhood wants] to exclude the youths from the scene of the revolution, and to steal its decision making from them….Suspicions are aroused of the credibility of these claims [that the Brotherhood is now moderate and democratic], and of the future of this revolution. Moreover, granting Al-Qaradawi the role of absolute hero in the rostrum speech means that there are those who are trying to tamper with the…face of this revolution….

“The Islamists' interference in directing the youths' revolution will give rise to a power struggle….In Egypt, perhaps the people might accept a military rule if the alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood Group.”

Then there is the novelist Jamal al-Ghitani in the Egyptian newspaper al-Akhbar, February 20. He is more optimistic seeing the revolution as a mixture of patriotic and religious elements

“The revolution of youth, which has become a revolution of all Egyptians, provides a remarkable opportunity to turn Egypt into a great power like China, Malaysia or the European Union. This can only be achieved by building a full-fledged civil state in every sense of the word, where everyone has equal rights, duties, freedoms and transparency.”

But he also worries:

“It would be a risk, if some people tried to push it in a narrower and more limited path, or used distant cases as a reference for the revolution [I assume he means Iran--BR], or replaced the symbols who led it and sacrificed their lives for it with others coming from afar, regardless of who they might be.”

And what happens when it is clear that Egypt will not be the new Europe or even the new China or Malaysia? How strong will the support be for a civil and democratic state in those circumstances? Remember that the creation of a radical nationalist regime—which may include a large measure of Islamization precisely to undercut the Brotherhood’s appeal—is as dangerous to regional peace and Egyptian democracy as an Islamist regime.

For Westerners, Egypt's revolution is a victory for democracy. We hope that it is. But what do the enemies of America and the West say? Well, let Hasan Nasrallah, Hizballah's spiritual guide explain it:

"The anniversary of the Iranian revolution coincided with the occasion of the Egyptian people's victory over the tyrant. And it's out of good fortune and fate for February 11 to become the day of the fall of the two biggest and most important allies of America in the region: the Shah's regime in Iran, and the Mubarak regime in Egypt."

Both sides can be right. Egypt will be a democracy and won't be an ally of America. That might mean we should be happy for the Egyptians and unhappy for U.S. interests.

Others, too, are starting to worry. Middle East Transparent has been the most important international Internet publication for Arab liberals. Now this publication, in an Arabic-language article, is really worried about events in Egypt, particularly the composition of the constitution-writing committee the military appointed.

Tariq al-Bishri is considered not only to be pro-Muslim Brotherhood but also hostile to Christians by Middle East Transparent. Another member is the openly Muslim Brotherhood Subhi Salih. The author wonders whether this indicates that the army is more Islamist-leaning than we think.
What’s being said by the most sophisticated analysts on and in Egypt behind the scenes is this: a nationalist government will be elected, will fail, and then the Brotherhood—which would have spent several years building its power and base—will make its big for power.

The fact is that many Egyptians, precisely those most supportive of a moderate democracy, are very worried that things will go in another direction. Yet much of the Western world is still in a cheerleading stage, certain that nothing can go wrong.

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 books include Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics and The Muslim Brotherhood (Palgrave-Macmillan); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, a study of Arab reform movements (Wiley). GLORIA Center site: His blog, Rubin Reports,

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