There is only one major question facing U.S. policy makers: Do we succeed in pushing President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to institute both significant reforms and accept the necessity of eventual resignation and creation of a transitional government? Or do we find that we are forced to find a new “democratic” government in office as the regime crumbles, and that the only organized political force existing at present uses its clout to in essence become the new Egyptian regime?
That force, as we all know, is the Muslim Brotherhood. On these pages, Barry Rubin has aptly noted that one outcome could be that:
The Muslim Brotherhood throws its full weight behind the rebellion. Soldiers refuse to fire at or join the opposition. Eventually, a radical regime emerges, with the Muslim Brotherhood as either ruler or power behind the throne. Remember that the “moderate democratic” leaders have been largely radical and willing to work with the Brotherhood. In that case, it is a fundamental transformation.
And Rubin’s harsh scenario, unfortunately, is as likely to take place as any other possible better alternative. Rubin is right that, should this occur, it “will be the biggest disaster for the region and the West since the Iranian revolution 30 years ago. And in some ways it will be worse.”
No wonder so many say we should stick with the devil we know. Or as FDR said of the Dominican Republic dictator in the 1940s, Rafael Trujillo, “He’s a son of a bitch. But he’s our son of a bitch.”
As bad as Mubarak is, and the Egyptian people have good reason to despise him, he is a lot better than other dictators who have led regimes in the Middle East. Remember Saddam Hussein, and also recall the forces that took power in Iran after the populace ousted the shah in 1979. I vividly remember all those student protesters on U.S. campuses bearing photos of the victims tortured by the shah’s secret police, and demanding the Shah’s ouster and his replacement by the great democratic revolutionaries led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. That was a popular theme as well in precincts of the always wise American left, symbolized by the arguments of Princeton University political scientist Richard Falk, or the comment of Jimmy Carter’s UN Ambassador Andrew Young that Khomeini was a “saint.”
It is most instructive to look back at Falk’s arguments, made a scant two weeks after the shah’s government fell and he fled Iran, and the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini returned to the country. Khomeini, Falk wrote in The New York Times (Feb.16, 1979), “has been depicted in a manner calculated to frighten,” and President Jimmy Carter had “associated him with religious fanaticism.” He was also “defamed” by the news media, some of whose pundits dared to call Khomeini an advocate of “theocratic fascism.”
Rather than being a religious leader who fit any of those dire characteristics made by his enemies, the movement had “a nonviolent record.” In addition, the would-be radical Islamist was a man who pleaded with Iran’s Jews to stay in the country. Certainly, even Falk had to acknowledge that the coming leader was against Israel. But that “of course” was due to the fact that Israel “supported the shah” and had not “resolved the Palestinian question.”
Khomeini was not dissembling, Falk assured his readers, since he expressed “his real views defiantly and without apology.” Moreover, his closest advisers were “uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals” and those he sought to lead a new government, all of whom “share a notable record of concern for human rights and see eager to achieve economic development that results in a modern society.” The reason the entire opposition deferred to Khomeini was not due to coercion, but because they knew that he and the Shiite “tradition is flexible in its approach to the Koran and evolves interpretations that correspond to the changing needs and experience of the people.” Its main desire and “religious orientation” was concern “with resisting oppression and promoting social justice.”
He knew that Khomeini sought “not to govern,” but instead simply to “inspire.” That is why he would live in the holy city of Qum, a place removed “from the daily exercise of power.” He would simply be a “guide or, if necessary, …a critic of the republic.” He would thus be able to show the world what “a genuine Islamic government can do on behalf of its people.” Falk assured readers that Khomeini scorned “so-called Islamic Governments in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Pakistan.” Thus one could talk of “Islam’s finest hour,” in which Khomeini had created “a new model of popular revolution based, for the most part, on nonviolent tactics.” Iran, he knew, would” provide us with a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third-world country.”
And you wonder why those of us who have become conservatives no longer trust the great spokesmen of the American left/liberal intelligentsia.
So far the retired Professor Falk has been quiet about Egypt. But others have not. Leading the pack is Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center. He also seems to be the man who has been one of Barack Obama’s chief advisors on the region, having chaired “at Obama’s request…the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009.” This is hardly, as the Daily Beast editors seem to think, a credential that puts the man in a good light.
Riedel writes that the years of stability in Egypt and a solid relationship with our country are over. There will be what he calls “more of a sea change in the regional geopolitics.” The “genie is out of the box” and, Riedel argues, there will be a more representative government in Egypt, one “much more inclined to criticize American and Israeli policies.” While the Egyptian street accepts the “logic of peace with Israel,” clearly Mr. Ridel does not. Indeed, he seems to think changing U.S. policy towards Israel is the key to peace in the region.
To accept Israel, he writes, means for the average Egyptian that he “bristles at the humiliation of being a de facto silent partner in the siege of Gaza, Israel’s wars against Hamas and Hezbollah and America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Riedel’s frightening implication is that the U.S. break with Israel and show a new warmth towards Hamas and Hezbollah. Thus, he writes, if there is a new Israeli war against its enemies, any new “democratic Egyptian government will have to listen to the voices of the street, both the left and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
He notes that the new hero of the day to many, Mohamed ElBaradei, “will almost certainly redouble the effort to put the Israeli [nuclear] arsenal on the agenda of the U.N.Security Council.” (On today’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, ElBaradei told Zakaria that any new government would have to include representatives of the Brotherhood, which he falsely argued was not a radical organization of an Islamist nature.)
In an earlier op-ed, Riedel put it more straightforwardly. His article bore the title “Don’t Fear Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.” We must “understand” the MB, he advises us — just as Richard Falk told us in 1979 to accept and understand Khomeini. Acknowledging that MB founder Shaykh Hassan al Banna “preached a fundamentalist Islamism” in 1928, Riedel argues that even at the time “he was also open to importing techniques of political propaganda from Europe” that made the MB a “fixture” in Egypt.
As for the MB today, Riedel like other apologists for Islamist groups, lets us know that “it has an enormous social-welfare infrastructure that provides cheap education and health care,” and that even in unfair rigged elections, “it is always the only opposition that does well even against the heavily rigged odds.” He emphasizes that it “renounced violence years ago,” is a group that shows “relative moderation,” etc. And he acknowledges that ElBaradei, the chosen alternative for so many of our country’s so-called “realists,” has “formed a loose alliance with the Brotherhood because he knows it is the only opposition group that can mobilize masses of Egyptians, especially the poor.”
If I can use an American analogy, that is like arguing in the 1930s that in the midst of economic crisis, depression, and despair, the people should turn to the American Communist Party because it is the only group that has organizational ability, even though its goal is a Soviet America. (Indeed, some people at the time argued just that.)
Riedel goes further, arguing that the MB “is the most reasonable face of Islamic politics in the Arab world today,” and that if one does not accept them, ElBaradei “will be swept along by more radical forces.” This is another canard: accept the supposedly moderate radicals, because there are even worse extremists on the horizon. Put aside that, as Roger Kimball reminded us at PJM, the MB is a supporter of “the grand jihad” and the erosion of Western society from within.
And Riedel ends by again bringing up the issue of Israel, as if it is the reason for the turmoil and rebellion taking place in Egypt’s streets. Riedel knows, as he writes, that the MB fought Israel in 1948, “its Palestinian branch was the nucleus for Hamas, and the Brotherhood retains links to the rulers of Gaza.” Also, the MB is “fundamentally opposed to any Egyptian cooperation with Israel.” So what should the U.S. do — abandon the only democracy the Middle East and our most staunch ally for decades?
This, of course, is what we are now going to hear from the “realist” brigade, more and more in the coming days. Riedel implies that the U.S. should change its policy to Israel, but shies away from saying it overtly. For the time being, he only says the U.S. “should not be afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood” and that it is not “inevitably our enemy.”
Fortunately, there are saner voices who understand the threat posed by the MB. Among these is the former NYT columnist and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie H. Gelb. As he points out, in what might be read as a direct retort to Riedel (and the Obama administration), while the protesters seem to be composed of many elements of the population, few really know who composes the crowds, and so far, judgments have been made on the interviews of a few people.
As for ElBaradei, Gelb notes he has little of a constituency within Egypt, and seems instead to be the chosen figure by American pundits and Obama administration advisors. As for the MB, Gelb warns, “they should give us great pause” and “would be calamitous for U.S. security.” Its defenders do not challenge that, but merely ignore the point, arguing that we can live with the Brotherhood. But in fact, Gelb says, it is a big deal. He writes:
The MB supports Hamas and other terrorist groups, makes friendly noises to Iranian dictators and torturers, would be uncertain landlords of the critical Suez Canal, and opposes the Egyptian-Israeli agreement of 1979, widely regarded as the foundation of peace in the Mideast. Above all, the MB would endanger counterterrorism efforts in the region and worldwide.
People like Riedel and those who echo him take the protestations of the MB at face value. Like Yasser Arafat, their spokesmen know well what to say to gullible Westerners who wish to be bamboozled into finding a reason to support them. They know how to make nice and to sound reasonable. As Gelb humorously notes by quoting what his mother would say to their words, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” That does not mean we have to accept their claims at face value. One should judge them by their best friends — Hamas and Hezbollah.
To show them trust, to follow the would-be wisdom of Riedel or Richard Falk, is to give credibility to the group that, at present, is the only organized political opposition that is capable of taking power, emulating the route initiated by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917, when they seized power and led to the collapse of the interim moderate socialist government in Russia. If the MB gains control, Gelb writes, “it’s going to be almost impossible for the people to take it back. Just look at Iran.”
Events are moving quickly, and things may take a great turn for the worse. Sudden collapse of the Mubarak regime and the coming to power of the MB in a coalition it dominates would be the worst result, and would threaten to turn the Middle East into chaos for a long time.
Only one thing is clear: Let us avoid counsel from those who urge us to accept the radical Islamists who appear in sheep’s clothing. Listening to the Richard Falks of our own day and age will assure the triumph of the worst possible outcome.