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Egypt Debate: Muslim Brotherhood Extremists Versus More Extreme Salafists

Islamists flooded Tahrir Square at the end of last week calling for the creation of a sharia state, the subjugation of women, the destruction of Israel, the banning of alcohol, and so on. Banners and chants filled the Square declaring “Islam, Islam, we do not want a liberal State” and “the people want Islamic law.”

Salafists to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood dominated the crowd, but the Brotherhood is confident their superior organizational capacity can overwhelm the Salafists’ demographic advantage in coming elections. The difference, according to an MB-sympathetic email posted by Jeffrey Goldberg, is that at least the Muslim Brotherhood will allow tourists to drink. So that’s where we’re at.

You’ll note the absence of anyone seriously discussing the emergence of a liberal Egyptian state. Apparently, now that facts on the ground have been set, foreign policy experts and their media enablers can drop that pretense.

But remember when things were supposed to be different? The Muslim Brotherhood, we were told in a neat example of Freudian denial, was both (a) radical and marginal and (b) moderate and popular. And remember how, since that’s incoherent on its face, the pretexts were also insulated with a thick coat of sneering condescension?

“Don’t you know that the Muslim Brotherhood is only 20 percent of the country?” ran the “radical but marginal” line.

Meanwhile, the “moderate but popular” line – a favorite of foreign policy experts and J Street founders alike – warned us against irrational ikwanophobia, insisting the Muslim Brotherhood was actually “frequently the most effective bulwark against al-Qaeda-style extremism.” Eventually, we ended up with the director of National Intelligence describing the organization as “largely secular.”

Now we should be careful not to totally blame the Obama administration for Arab dynamics that have been decades if not centuries in the making, which would mimic the left’s pathetic parochialism from the Bush years. But if the foreign policy establishment is going to have anything approaching productive debates, there has to be an end to this weird combination of wishful vaguely pro-extremist advocacy defended with just flat out terrible arguments.

There were plenty of coherent neocon-ish arguments for supporting Mubarak’s popular overthrow even in the face of a medium-term Muslim Brotherhood takeover, from the need to drain the swamp of moderation-suffocating dictators to the moral obligation America has regarding liberal democratization. But the institutional and activist left didn’t want to make any of those arguments. Doing so would expose their Bush-era histrionics as cynical calculations that prioritized electoral considerations over solidarity with oppressed democrats, to say nothing of how recognizing the overarching reality of Islamism would mesh poorly with their “they hate us because of our actions” sensibility.

So instead, we got “the Muslim Brotherhood is disorganized and moderate.” Turns out, not so much.


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