Uh-Oh, A Foretaste of The New Democratic Egypt: Radical Nationalists and "Liberal Islamists"

By Barry Rubin

There is still confusion regarding some details of the terrorist assault by Gaza Palestinians affiliated with al-Qaida, from Egypt, into Israel, and then back into Egypt. Israeli survivors of the attack say the terrorists were wearing Egyptian army uniforms.

At one point, either confused or after the terrorists hid among a group of Egyptian soldiers dressed the same way, Israeli soldiers fired and reportedly killed three real Egyptian soldiers. Israel has apologized in line with international norms.

Amr Moussa, the man most likely to be Egypt's next president and known for his hatred of Israel and strong dislike of the United States (a radical nationalist who opposes Islamism but might make a deal with the Brotherhood to get into power and to govern thereafter) gives a foretaste of his demagagic tendencies if elected. He tweeted:

“Israel has to realize that the days in which our sons are killed without an appropriate and strong reaction are forever gone.”

That sounds rather like a threat of war. Oh, he'll be just fine running Egypt, right? For the record, let's note that Egypt failed to guard its border, the shortcoming that made the whole shoot-out happen in the first place. Presumably Egypt won't be apologizing to Israel. In fact, it has withdrawn its ambassador.

(A personal note. A couple of year ago, an Egyptian diplomat invited me to lunch in Tel Aviv. One of the things he said was that he had advised Israeli Arab citizens to reverse their policy of refusing to join Israel' army. Then, he explained, they could get military training and have guns to use against Israel some day. They rejected the idea, he concluded. I'm not joking. That's the way people really talk in the Middle East when they think it isn't going to be reported. I should add that I never agreed on any confidentiality in that conversation.)

Nor will anyone in Egypt--not a single group, writer, or intellectual--publicly condemn the attack on Israel even though it was carried out by an al-Qaida affiliate that also wants an Islamist revolution in Egypt. Of course, the Egyptian military is attacking local al-Qaida revolutionaries within the country. But we are back to the pre-Sadat standard: Anything that kills Israelis is good.

What will happen when Hamas attacks Israel with rockets, mortars, and attempted cross-border attacks? Israel retaliates. President Moussa will again threaten war and while he probably would not go so far ("probably" does not make one feel secure), he would suspend the Egypt-Israel peace treaty or suspend the Israeli ambassador. Wouldn't that make him a hero? And certainly Egypt would let money, Egyptian volunteers, and weapons flow freely into the Gaza Strip to help the "brothers" there confront "Zionist aggression." The Arab world would cheer.

Here's a good summary to remember this change: Hamas is to Egypt as to Hizballah is to Syria, a client and proxy terrorist group with which to hit Israel while avoiding direct confrontation. There are unconfirmed reports that Iran is cutting back on funding for Hamas--since Hamas wants Iran's ally, the Syrian regime, to be overthrown. If that story is true, Egypt will be all the more important as Hamas's new patron.

And what would President Obama do? One shudders to think but it might have something to do with playing golf.

Perhaps, though, Moussa won't be president. Perhaps someone else will win the election. Either way, though, the president will have to deal with a strengthened parliament that will be around 40 percent radical Islamist, 10 percent far left, and much of the rest radical nationalist.

The New York Times has offered us, however, a definitional solution to the problem by creating a new political ideology. And I predict that we will be hearing a great deal about this new "movement" : the "liberal Islamist."

"Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a liberal Islamist and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, released a statement asking the ruling military council to deal with the incident as a matter of national security and demanded the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador as well as a halt of Egyptian gas shipments to Israel."

Actually, though, Fotouh's political role is not quite clear. He poses as a centrist nice guy who has split away from the Brotherhood. I rather suspect he is still a Brotherhood leader under cover. The Brotherhood promised not to run a candidate for president and Fotouh's "split" give it a plausible deniability. But after all won't the Brotherhood leaders and supporters be voting for Fotouh and reconcile with him immediately thereafter? Is there any real difference between Fotouh and the Brotherhood on substantive issues? Presumably "moderation" means going a bit slower in transforming Egypt into an Islamist state.

Of course Amr Moussa is more a representative of the old Egypt than anyone else in Egyptian politics today. But he is popular and demagoguery will make him more popular. Of course there are genuinely moderate people and parties that want to improve living standards, clean up corruption, and do other good things. The problem is, however, who will end up being in power.

If Amr Moussa is elected and the Brotherhood becomes the single biggest party in parliament we could well say "The revolution has been betrayed." That would not be the first time in history that has happened. Others would say "The revolution has been fulfilled." This is precisely what happened in Iran. Every day I hear from friends in Egypt how frightened or angry or upset or worried they are. I hope things will turn out well; as an analyst I must report what I see.

Incientally, even for a Middle East cynic like me the outpouring of Arab media support for the attack on Israel is surprising. After all, it is an al-Qaida operation and it would have been easy to pretend moderation, winning some brownie points in the West, by going tsk-tsk at the evil al-Qaida as opposed to the "wonderful" Hamas and Fatah.

Nope, even the official Palestinian Authority newspaper--rather than lay low to promote a nice image on the eve of the UN independence debate--praised the attack and cold-blooded murder of Israeli civilians. Presumably they don't feel any need to pretend to be moderate since they know much of the Western media, academics, and even governments will give them a free pass no matter what they do or say.

Incidentally, NowLebanon, an excellent moderate source of news, estimates that almost 20,000 people have been killed in the "Arab Spring" (or as the Washington Post calls it, "Arab Transition," disorders, mostly in Libya. The "Arab Spring" is not being followed by an Arab Summer, and next to come is the fall.