Here’s a pretty gruesome story from Pakistan that began circulating yesterday:
At least 11 nurses, including three Christians, were poisoned at Civil Hospital Karachi for eating during Ramadan. During their afternoon break yesterday, the 11 nurses went to the hostel cafeteria for some tea and food. Rita, a Catholic nurse, collapsed first after drinking her tea. Now all the nurses are in the hospital’s intensive care unit, some in very serious conditions.
It was an appropriate day, then, for the State Department to publish its 2011 report on religious freedom around the globe. And the bottom line is that, throughout the Islamic world, as well as in the unreconstructed communist and authoritarian states, there’s precious little of it.
What kind of ranking does religious freedom hold in the conduct of American foreign policy? As of this morning, the State Department’s website had on prominent display the following declaration from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “For the United States, religious freedom is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest, and a foreign policy priority.” No room for misinterpretation there, then.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with top Israeli officials yesterday, and made a powerful case against a renewed push for the peace process. She didn’t mean to, of course; she was actually exhorting the Israeli leadership to do whatever they must to get Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table. But she employed two arguments in support of her recommendation that in reality work against it. Haaretz reports:
According to an Israeli official who was briefed on the content of the meetings, Clinton told the different Israeli officials that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are the best partners the Israelis ever had, adding that “it is unclear who will come after them.”
If Abbas and Fayyad–who resolutely refuse to even meet with Israeli leaders face to face–are the best Palestinian “peace partners” Israel has ever had, it is clear the peace process has gone practically nowhere since it began. But the second comment is more important.
My colleague and Wall Street Journal Asia columnist Sadanand Dhume has one of the more valuable twitter feeds in Washington; it is a one-stop shop for anyone interested in South Asia, but he also on occasion includes references to interesting articles further afield. Today, Sadanand calls attention to this article from Egypt Independent regarding the dearth of acceptance in Egypt toward Charles Darwin and the concept of evolution:
A 2007 survey by sociologist Riaz Hassan found that only 8 percent of Egyptians accepted evolution as “true or probably true,” with more than 50 percent saying it could not possibly be true. Such antagonistic attitudes were reflected at a more regional level in October 2009, when Al Jazeera Arabic published an article on the discovery of “Ardi,” a 4.4 million-year-old hominid fossil. Rather than describing how the fossil brought scientists closer than ever to finding a common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees, the news item boasted that Ardi “proves Darwin’s theory is wrong.” The local press in Egypt enthusiastically picked up on the story, with several major papers running headlines that declared “the end of Darwin.”
While the state curriculum during Hosni Mubarak’s regime mandated the teaching of a unit on Darwin, the article quotes a teacher acknowledging that he tells his students to discount the theory.
It is certainly good news, as I have previously noted, that Mahmoud Jibril’s secular National Forces Alliance is the big winner in the recent Libyan legislative election–better news certainly than the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has dominated Egypt’s elections or that the more moderate Islamist party Ennahda has taken taken power in Tunisia. It suggests that free elections in the Middle East need not be synonymous with an Islamist takeover; indeed, Libyan voters seemed to recoil from the Islamists’ message that they were somehow better Muslims than anyone else.
But we must not lose sight of the big picture: We are talking about one election only in each country. No matter which path they set down–Islamist or secular–their ultimate destination remains very much unknown. Much will be determined by the success or failure of the new governments, of whatever ideological stripe, in addressing the basic pocketbook issues that people everywhere care about.
This appears to be the heyday of American-educated professors in the Middle East. Mohammed Morsi, an engineering Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, is the new president of Egypt. Mahmoud Jibril, a political science Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, is the likely new leader of Libya. But there the comparisons end. For while Morsi is an Islamist who is closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Jibril is a liberal secularist who ran in opposition to the Brotherhood. His coalition’s triumph in Libya’s weekend election shows that there is nothing inevitable about an Islamist takeover in the Arab world’s emerging democracies.
It also shows that American intervention can help to shape the region for the better. Jibril’s credibility comes not only from his affiliation in the populous Warfalla tribe but also from his American background (free of the taint of cooperation with the previous regime) and his role as head of the National Transitional Council which, with Western support, led the fight against Qaddafi. Many in the West fear that any Western support will be the kiss of death for Arab moderates who will be denounced as Western lackeys by their own people. Not in Libya. The very fact that the U.S. and its allies got actively involved allowed them to boost a moderate leader despite Libya’s turbulent politics.
When the Arab Spring bug caught on in Egypt, in late January 2011, commentators rushed to explain that the Tahrir Square crowd was hip and Western, secular and “facebooked.” Never mind the rape of a Western journalist, Lara Logan, by the hip and Western revolutionaries – a fate visited upon other female journalists during the following months (see here and here). Everyone looked around, and the Muslim Brotherhood was nowhere to be seen.
This fact, alone, seems to have fed the facile illusion that the Brotherhood could not hijack the initial Twitter moment of the Egyptian revolt against Hosni Mubarak.
Since then, at each turn of the road, as the Muslim Brotherhood gradually hijacked the Egyptian transition, commentators told us there was no need to worry. The Muslim Brotherhood would only contest a small number of seats (they did not); they would not have a candidate of their own for the presidency (they did); and their candidate was moderate (he wasn’t).
I must respectfully disagree with Max’s wait-and-watch take on an Egypt ruled by Mohammed Morsi. One certainly wants to see a democratic Egypt. And it is not exactly indefensible that Washington expressed hopes the Egyptian military would honor the recent election results. There remains, after all, no viable long-term game plan that relies on dictatorship to keep fanaticism under wraps. But urging countries to respect election results must be accompanied by a clear-eyed vigilance about what those results may portend. Just as a military dictatorship does not a free society make, a theocracy—even a publicly “softer” one that might (might) have incorporated notions of democracy into its ruling framework—is also not the stuff of freedom and tolerance. And in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is very, very far from it.
There is too much evidence of the Brotherhood’s Islamist brutality, militant anti-Americanism, and seething anti-Semitism—both historically and currently—to wipe the slate clean and wait for the ennobling transformation that comes with governing responsibility. The lesson that votes do not constitute democracies has been learned in places such as Algeria in the early 1990s and in the Palestinian territories in 2006. In both cases, the ballot box served as a pathway to Islamist nightmare. Surely, hoping for the best future does not mean dismissing the past.
I’m with the always-sagacious Fouad Ajami: He argues in the Wall Street Journal that the new Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, ought to be given a chance to show what he can do. Perhaps he will turn out to be as bad as numerous critics suspect, but it’s also possible that he could turn out to be better than expected. If he concentrates on instituting free-market reforms to get Egypt’s sclerotic economy moving rather than concentrating on issuing decrees to ban such “immoral” behavior as drinking and wearing bikinis, he might well win over even secular Egyptians.
It is doubtful that the worst fears of his American and Israeli critics will come true, at least not in the short term–given how much power the army has kept for itself, Morsi would not be able to abrogate the Camp David Accords even if he wanted to. It may well be the case that he will provide more aid to Hamas and adopt a more belligerent tone toward Israel, but remember that even under the Mubarak regime, the Egyptian state pumped out a steady diet of disgusting anti-Semitic propaganda and looked the other way at massive smuggling into the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
One characteristic of a deeply complex geopolitical event is the tension between the lessons we choose to learn from past experiences and those we forget, or dismiss. But the role of history looms large, and this is no different with the Arab Spring. Is it like 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern European states began to throw off the yoke of the Soviet Union? Or is it more like 1848, when teetering historic European powers fell one after another in popular uprisings? It turned out that this was far too wide a scope. Each of the world’s endangered autocrats has instead watched how the last domino fell in order to avoid being the next. And no single domino dominates the world’s imagination more than Egypt.
So now that Egypt’s revolution seems to have been hijacked (the word “coup” has been bandied about) by the military and the old guard (though the government may have an Islamist figurehead), what has everyone learned? Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has learned he can retain power by slaughtering his people and not giving in. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has learned if he is to survive he ought to make sure the domino in front of him doesn’t fall first. Assad is that domino, and he also happens to be both an enemy and neighbor of Israel. So in the Washington Post’s long interview with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Syria was unsurprisingly the subject of a good portion of it, and the most interesting exchange:
[WP:] Going back to Syria, do you think the West should arm the opposition?
[Barak:] I think many steps should be taken. Russia has invested a lot of political capital and money in the [Assad] regime. They should have a certain role if we want to succeed. The whole structure of the Syrian state should not be blamed — it is a family and certain individuals [who are responsible]. I believe that if America and Russia talk[ed] together about who can use what leverage, that could be extremely effective. And of course Turkey, the most important neighbor of Syria. What can we do in order to remove this family from power without destroying Syria as a state? Not repeat the mistakes that were made in Iraq, where everything from the Baath Party to the military was dismantled. There’s no need to do that [and increase] the chances that they will end up with a chaotic civil war, where the bad guys will be more prominent. It’s time for the world to dictate to Mr. Assad to move out of power or else. But the “or else” can be convincing only if America and Russia will join hands.
Egypt has had quite a wild ride since the Tahrir Square protests ousted longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Ever since, the carousel of Egyptian politics has gyrated wildly, but it seems it was spinning in a circle the whole time. Far from seeing the inauguration of a new democracy, we appear to be witnessing the transition from rule by one former general to collective rule by a bunch of active-duty generals. Egypt seems to be moving in the direction of pre-reform Burma–even the names of the two ruling juntas are remarkably similar and sinister: SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) in Egypt; SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) in Burma.
In both cases, the generals are claiming to save the people from the messy untidiness of democracy. In Egypt, that case has been somewhat strengthened by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood and hard-line Salafists won the vast majority of parliamentary seats and that a Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won this weekend’s presidential election. Even before the presidential results had been announced, the SCAF had dissolved parliament and instituted decrees that limit the new president’s power to largely ceremonial functions. All that remains to be seen is how the Brotherhood–the largest and most powerful non-governmental organization in Egypt–will react. Will the generals’ actions be quietly accepted, as they were in Turkey in 1980, or will they spark a bloody civil war, as they did in Algeria in 1992? Regardless, it is a tragedy that the will of the Egyptian people, who plainly long for Western-style democracy and not an Iranian-style theocracy or a sclerotic police state, is being thwarted.
Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court’s ruling dissolving the Islamist-dominated parliament elected just six months ago turns Egypt’s already rough-and-tumble political situation on its head. While all eyes have been on the presidential elections later this week, the parliament was in many ways more important: Charged with writing the new constitution, the parliament was about 80 percent Islamist. As the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi an-Nour Party were forced by their new positions to dispense with the opportunistic populism of opposition and get down to the hard business of governance, they found their support waning; the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate was unable to pass the 30 percent threshold in the first round of presidential elections.
It is this wakeup call upon which the Egyptian military hopes to capitalize. They believe that if they can have a “do-over” they can reverse the populist wave which the Islamists rode during their first electoral test and prevent a situation in which the Islamists, whose popularity has been on the same trajectory as Facebook stock, were able to lock in influence no longer matched by popular support.
The Six-Day War ended 45 years ago today. In his comprehensive history, Michael Oren noted the war was one of the shortest in recorded history, but that in that brief period Israeli fatalities were the equivalent, in per capita terms, of 80,000 Americans.
Two days after the war ended, Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol summarized what had led to it: on May 15, Egyptian forces had crossed the Suez Canal; by May 18 they were deployed on Israel’s border; Egypt demanded the withdrawal of UN peacekeeping forces and on May 23 closed the Strait of Tiran to shipping both to and from Israel; on May 30, Egypt signed a military agreement with Jordan and another one with Iraq on June 4; together with the one already in place with Syria, the encirclement of Israel was complete, and secret orders had been issued to prepare for the attack on Israel. Then Eshkol addressed the Arabs directly:
“To the Arab peoples I want to say: we did not take up arms in any joyful spirit. We acted because we had no alternative if we wanted to defend our lives and our rights. Just as you have a right to your countries, so we have a right to ours. The roots of the Jewish people in this country go back to primeval days. Throughout the generations, Israel in dispersion maintained its spiritual and material links ….
“There is no parallel in the annuals of the nations to this unique bond between our people and its Land. Perhaps the fact that we have successfully survived the three wars that have been forced upon us will finally convince those who refuse to recognize this fundamental truth …”
Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while still mayor of Istanbul, famously quipped, “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.” Alas, as Martin Kramer has so often warned, it appears that Egypt Islamists are taking the same tact. On May 19, Islamic Jihad Organization member Shaykh Usamah Qasim took to the pages of Al-Misri al-Yawm to warn that Islamists would not tolerate a victory by any of the non-Islamist candidates. According to a translation provided by the Open Source Center:
…The victory of former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq or former Arab League chief Amr Musa in the coming presidential elections would lead some Islamic and non-Islamic groups to respond with “armed action.” “Thus, the fate of any of them who reaches the presidency will be like that of former President Anwar al-Sadat, who was assassinated,” Qasim said.
President Bush returned to Washington earlier this week to mark the opening of the “Freedom Collection” at the Bush Institute in Dallas. At the event, President Bush gave a speech that was turned into an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that’s worth reading.
President Bush offered a sophisticated critique of (among other things) the so-called Arab Spring. “The collapse of an old order can unleash resentments and power struggles that a new order is not yet prepared to handle,” the former president said. Years of transition can be difficult. He acknowledged that there is nothing easy about the achievement of freedom. But Bush pointed out that there is an inbuilt crisis in tyrannies, which is that they are illegitimate and, eventually, citizens rise up against them. Regardless of their culture, people don’t want to be subject to repression, violence, and the lash of the whip.
Egypt is a good example. Whatever one thinks about the short, medium, and long-term prospects there – and there are certainly reasons for concern — the revolution itself was organic. America didn’t provoke the uprising and, until the 11th hour, we stood with Hosni Mubarak. We were essentially bystanders to events there. Mubarak did not take the necessary steps for reform and liberation when he could – and in the end, he was consumed by the resentments and hatreds he helped to create.
Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, then, tectonic plates are shifting, whether we like it or not. What does that mean for American policy? Read More
Political mainstreaming will cause the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to embrace moderation and responsibility, said the same people who predicted the same things about Hamas and Hezbollah. Yet again, something seems to have gone awry:
On the campaign trail for the presidential election, now only nine days away, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken a sharp turn rightward…
“We are seeing the dream of the Islamic caliphate coming true at the hands of Mohammed Morsi,” said cleric Safwat Hegazy at a campaign rally for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for president.
According to a Muslim Brotherhood preacher, incidentally, the capital of that revived caliphate will be Jerusalem. For the Brotherhood, in other words, “the dream of the Islamic caliphate” is a foreign policy package.
While I am not sad to see Hosni Mubarak gone nor do I believe that the status quo ante was tenable, the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood has transformed itself into some sort of benevolent force is the type of nonsense that only Middle Eastern Studies academics can peddle. Academics and journalists who sat down with Muslim Brotherhood interlocutors and believed what the Brethren’s self-described moderates and technocrats told them were not path breaking; rather, they were useful idiots.
From a mass rally for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Muhammad Mursi aired on Egyptian television on May 1, and transcribed by MEMRI:
The Obama administration’s reaction to the Chen Guangcheng case is disgraceful, and will taint America’s name among liberty-seeking dissidents for a generation. While all eyes are on China, however, administration fecklessness regarding liberals, friends, and allies is spreading quickly. When it comes to standing up for principle, Obama’s reaction to Chen is the rule, not the exception.
Take Egypt: Adel Emam is perhaps Egypt’s most famous film comedian, sort of a cross between an Egyptian Steve Martin and Leslie Nielsen. Among his most famous films are Al-Irhabi (The Terrorist) and Al-Irhab wal kabab (Terrorism and Kebab). The first—released at the height of Egyptian Islamists’ campaign of terror—skewered the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist terror masters as cynical, hypocritical, and naïve. The latter took potshots at both religiosity and the inefficiency of the Egyptian bureaucracy. Islamists may tell Western journalists and think-tankers they will honor civil liberties, but nowhere do they tolerate satire or ridicule if they themselves are the target. Hence, their targeting of Adel Emam for films made years ago. Emam now faces three months in prison for “defaming Islam.”
Former Arab League Chairman Amr Moussa leads a field of 13 presidential candidates in Egypt, according to a survey by the Al-Ahram Political Studies Center. Moussa received 41.1 percent of the vote, compared to surging Islamist but ex-Muslim Brotherhood candidate Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who took 27.3 percent of the vote. The poll does not reflect the impact of the Salafist Nour Party and Salafist Scholar Shura Council’s endorsement of Abul-Fotouh.
It would be a mistake to get lost in the horse race among the candidates at this point, though. It may be tempting for many to embrace Amr Moussa because he is not an Islamist, but when it comes to any issues about which Western liberals and proponents of Middle East peace and tolerance care, Amr Moussa is little better than his Salafist opponents.
Rather, it’s time the United States look ahead to Egypt’s future. Each candidate has promised their constituents the world. The Muslim Brotherhood and an-Nour rose to victory in parliamentary elections not only on the back of Saudi and Qatari petrodollars, but also because their representatives could condemn corruption and promise the poor and dispossessed almost anything: Guaranteed jobs, housing, and higher education; good salaries; and set prices in the markets.
Yesterday, I wrote about the Obama administration’s decision to back the Muslim Brotherhood’s bid for a monopoly on power in Egypt. The rationale behind this startling decision was the possibility that an even more extreme Islamist appeared likely to win the upcoming presidential election. But now it appears that the candidacy of Sheik Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafi leader who appeared to be taking the country by storm, is in jeopardy.
If so, and the possibility that the most radical Islamist in the race will not be running Egypt has receded, the question for Washington is how President Obama’s foreign policy team — which met this week with a delegation of radical Islamists from the Brotherhood in the White House — proposes to walk back their latest unforced error on Egypt? Given the dangers that would accrue from the Brotherhood adding the presidency to their control of Egypt’s new parliament, it looks as if the administration has given sanction to a development that will alter the political landscape of the Middle East in a manner that will severely diminish American influence and increase the possibility of more Islamist violence against Israel.
President Obama faces a difficult task in trying to influence events in post-revolutionary Egypt. With its military rulers brutally abusing the human rights of their people and a rising tide of Islamism threatening to drag the most populous Arab nation into a morass of fundamentalism and violent conflict, maintaining the U.S. relationship with Egypt is inherently problematic. But as he did during the last days of the Mubarak regime last year, the president may have just managed to make a bad situation worse.
On the heels of the Egyptians’ attempt to imprison Americans seeking to promote democracy, Obama has directed the State Department to exercise a national security waiver that will enable $1.3 billion in military assistance to once again flow to Cairo despite legislation linking the aid directly to human rights concerns. It is believed the waiver was payment to the Egyptian military for its decision to allow seven Americans to leave the country this month. The ransom might have seemed reasonable to their families (especially because the father of one of those in peril was Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood). But the move will disillusion Egyptian democrats as well as send a signal to both the military and the Islamist majority in the new parliament that not only is Obama not interested in human rights but that the U.S. is willing to bow to blackmail.