In today’s New York Times, Michael Slackman offers another boilerplate criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza: that it is inflaming Islamists (or, the analytically meaningless “Arab street”), thereby undermining secular Arab regimes that are friendly to the United States. Keeping with his pseudo-journalistic strategy of interviewing any English-speaking Egyptian he can find – whether an “expert” or just some random guy on the street – who supports his own outlook (h/t Soccer Dad), Slackman writes:
Nowhere in the Arab world is the gap between the street and the government so wide as here in Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel and has refused to allow free passage of goods and people through its border with Gaza, a decision that has been attacked by Islamic and Arab leaders and proved deeply troubling to many Egyptians. And so the government of President Hosni Mubarak appeared to lean back on its standard formula for preserving authority at Friday Prayer, relying on its security forces to keep calm on the street and government religious institutions like Al Azhar to try to appease public sentiment, in this case by lashing out at the Jews in response to Gaza.
One wonders how this dog-bites-man news item made the front page of today’s paper. Slackman should know better: the divide between Egypt’s secular authoritarian government and its vocal Islamist opponents is nothing new, and there is certainly no sign that this gap has widened over the past two weeks. Indeed, even amidst the most minor international incidents involving Islam, anti-Semitic sermons at Al-Azhar mosque – which the Egyptian government controls – are standard fare. (I happen to know this firsthand: I attended Friday services at Al-Azhar immediately following the Pope’s critical comments on Muhammad, and was treated to a sermon much like the one that Slackman describes – from the very same imam, no less.)
Actually, the real news item is buried towards the end of this article: Slackman notes that Islamists had intended to stage an anti-Israel demonstration outside of Al-Azhar following yesterday’s services, but were deterred by an overwhelming police presence. This is remarkably different from the 2006 Lebanon War, when Islamists staged tremendous protests throughout downtown Cairo, forcing the Mubarak regime to retreat from its initial support for Israel’s attack on Hezbollah. Naturally, Slackman attempts to hide this inconvenient fact: he claims that domestic support for Hamas – even without the demonstrations – has pressured Egypt to abandon its early support for Israel during the current conflict.
Of course, Slackman is totally wrong. If anything, the Egyptian government has doubled down on Israel: beyond supporting a truce that favors Israeli objectives, it is blocking domestic Islamist demonstrations against Israel to a nearly unprecedented extent. In turn, we have the best evidence yet of Israel’s success against Hamas: Hosni Mubarak – the Middle East’s longest serving dictator after Qaddafi – always bets on the winning horse.