Middle East Craziness: Some Personal Anecdotes

By Barry Rubin

I think if you haven’t had much contact with the Middle East it is hard to comprehend how loony a region this is and the magnitude of the lies told about it. I had to deal today with something relating to the presence of Egypt’s embassy in Israel and it made me think about some past experiences.

A few years ago I was giving a lecture at the Australian National University. It was a pretty routine and uncontroversial session when suddenly the question and answer period erupted into something close to a melee. One of the people in the audience was the wife of the Egyptian ambassador to Australia and she started yelling about how horrible a country Israel was, full of evil racists.

What was her grievance? She claimed that when she walked around the streets of Tel Aviv, people threatened and spat at her. This was thoroughly bizarre even beyond all the obvious reasons. She obviously dressed in Western clothes and was not identifiable as an Egyptian or Arab. I had never seen a picture of the ambassador or his wife in the Israeli media so nobody would know what she looked like anyway.

The Egyptian embassy is located near Basel Street, an upscale yuppie area of expensive cafes that if anything is on the left side of the political spectum. I don’t think there had ever even been a demonstration at the embassy. So aside from the fact that Israelis have never harassed foreign diplomats as far as I know and that there had never been an article or protest about such alleged harassment, there was every reason to believe that the whole story was a fantasy.

Yet she spoke with such passion and certainty that I wouldn’t have been surprised if some, many, most of the audience completely believed her and felt sorry for the poor woman who had been chased and harassed by (purely fictional) Israeli racist haters of Arabs, etc.

Incidentally, we have now had a mob assault on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, with the Egyptian military standing by and doing nothing until the last possible moment when the Israeli staff members were literally barricaded in the last room and faced possible lynching. Yet even now there has not been the slightest gesture by Israelis against the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv.

Another experience was one of many bizarre encounters I’ve had in a long career of dealing with the Middle East. One day I received a telephone call from the Egyptian embassy asking me to meet with a diplomat there, I believe the first secretary. We went to lunch in a nearby café (no jeering mobs followed him around, by the way).

He was going through his talking points, with no effect on me. Perhaps he was filling a quota or something. Suddenly, though, we got on a most strange topic. He started talking about his meeting with Israeli Arabs (Palestinians who were Israeli citizens, if you wish) and spoke along the following lines:

I don’t understand why they don’t serve in the Israeli army. I kept telling them that they should demand the right to serve in the army, and then get weapons and training so they could use the guns and experience gained in fighting Israel. But they weren’t interested.

Now I had no difficulty in believing that he had indeed had such a conversation. But what was pretty bizarre was that he was telling me this. So to make sure that I understood correctly I asked him to repeat the story and he did precisely the same way. Yes, I had understood him correctly.

This is a tiny portion of the kinds of logical disconnects one gets in dealing with this part of the world. Yet people think it is really easy and that by merely making parallels with their experiences back home people can not only understand things here but make peace easily and explain why revolutionary Islamists who say they want to kill you are really moderates.

Incidentally, I'm getting a bit tired of people who are always wrong continuing to make new mistakes without acknowledging the old ones. Recently, NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof told us that the Muslim Brotherhood is really moderate because they were nice to him at dinner.

So here's the great expert last February:

"American officials worry that Mr. Mubarak has for decades stifled any secular democratic opposition, so the only organized dissent comes from the Muslim Brotherhood. The fear is that if elections come too soon, before secular groups can organize, the Brotherhood will do well.

"That’s a legitimate concern, but it’s one that the Egyptian opposition is fully aware of and has a variety of mechanisms to address. And a new opinion survey shows that the Muslim Brotherhood has only 15 percent approval...." (emphasis added)

So Kristoff was saying that the Brotherhood wasn't going to do well in parliamentary elections. In fact they came in first with almost 40 percent. Wrong then, wrong now, wrong in future.

Speaking of which here's the Obama Administration assuring American Jewish leaders in March 2011 that the Muslim Brotherhood would only be a minor player in Egyptian politics and was nothing to worry about.