Belmont Club

Return to Egypt

A few days ago I attended a talk by Peter Day,  who was for years a correspondent to the Middle East and Washington of a large Australian newspaper, on the subject of the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt. The gist of his talk was that while things may certainly turn out differently from 1952, recent events had many echoes of the alliance that informally existed between the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood then, and which exist now.

Nasser was too jealous to share power and purged his co-revolutionaries, the Muslim Brotherhood. But like Trotsky to the Soviet Union’s Stalin, they never went away and were even more attractive in opposition. Now they are back. Here’s an excerpt from an article based on his talk. Peter Day recently returned from a visit of several weeks to Egypt. He is working on a book on Egypt, with a focus on its Coptic people.

The Future of Egypt

Like Nasser before them, the Brotherhood now seeks out American officials to offer comforting assurances. They say that they are a changed organisation – that they are more interested now in social services than politics, that they are against violence, believe in democracy, and that they are shedding the old reactionary views about, for example, the role of women and non-Muslims in an Islamic society.

How reliable are these assurances? There is no shortage of scepticism from people possessing deep knowledge of Islamist movements. For example Professor Bernard Lewis, a doyen of Middle Eastern studies, said recently:

I don’t think [the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt] is in any sense benign. I think it is a very dangerous, radical Islamic movement. If they obtain power, the consequences would be disastrous for Egypt.

It could very well also be disastrous for the rest of us. But well-placed US defenders of the Brotherhood say its representatives should be taken at their word. They are impressed by the efforts of Brotherhood people to ‘build bridges’, such as the launch five years ago of the initiative titled, “Re-Introducing the Brotherhood to the West”. They are impressed that the Brotherhood has gone to the trouble of building a very professional English-language website, that they make some of their people available to western journalists, and that their op-eds now even appear in the New York Times.

And in any case, they say, even if the organisation does not live up to the promises of its more sophisticated, English-speaking spokesmen, developing close relations with the Brotherhood will enable the US to moderate any tendency to extremism.

All these people should read more history. American officials in Cairo thought Nasser was OK because he used to like eating hot dogs with them while watching movies starring Esther Williams. At least the American officials who supported the seizure of power in the early 1950s by the Nasser-Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy did have one or two legitimate excuses for taking a fascist at his word. They did have a Cold War to worry about. And the coup of 1952 was their first real foray into Egyptian politics. What did they know? Not much. Sixty years later, there are no such excuses.

One of Peter’s most interesting arguments was the assertion that US diplomatic miscalculation launched Nasserism, or at least was blind to it, in a big way. Historians may argue over the past, but there will probably be more agreement among observers about the lack of information about those the Obama administration is currently supporting in the present.

Who can know the truth with exactitude? But maybe it would be wiser to look before the leap. Or maybe Washington has already looked, it’s just that their filters are maladjusted.

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Defense Tech says the administration is now looking for anyone who wants a job training the “Libyan rabbles”, as the magazine puts it. “Coming on the heels of administration leaks that the CIA’s special activities division operators (maybe even sheep-dipped CAG kickers) have been spooled up to go put some kind of cerebral guidance system on the herd of cats that is the fighting arm of the Libyan “Transitional National Council,” we saw this report from a tres ballsy Orla Guerin of the BBC from the front lines.”

Yes. Look before you leap has been replaced by leap before you look.  Whoever said thought this would be a quick in and out may have been mistaken. MSNBC says, “US set to end combat missions over Libya”. “‘The idea that … American air power is grounded unless the place goes to hell is just so unnerving that I can’t express it adequately,’ Sen. Lindsey Graham said.” Meanwhile Wired explained that “U.S. Gunships Will Be ‘on Standby’ in NATO’s Libya War”. Irony is a lost art, but stupidity is not.

McCain was practically livid during a Thursday afternoon hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. With the Libyan rebels getting routed on the ground, “your timing is exquisite,” McCain sarcastically lectured Gates and Mullen. “I’m glad to know that small arms will be effective for them.”

Mullen confirmed that the U.S. Air Force’s low-flying gunships — chief tools of close air support for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan — will only be available for striking Moammar Gadhafi’s tanks, trucks and artillery pieces “over the next several days.”

McCain couldn’t believe what he was hearing: “It seems to me we are not doing everything necessary to achieve our policy goals.”

So Gates disclosed that “we have made provisions to have our strike aircraft available on a short period of time,” should NATO be unable to stop an unfolding humanitarian disaster. The AC-130s and A-10s — and, possibly, U.S. warplanes — will be “sort of on a standby.” McCain still characterized that as the United States “abdicating its leadership role.”

Standby for what? Napoleon (“if you’re going to take Vienna, take Vienna”) has been replaced by Yogi Berra (“We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”) Until the next news cycle, Belmont out.

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