Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood

Should U.S. Give Morsi a Chance?

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.

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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.

Ajami suggests the Brotherhood’s model is not Iran but rather Turkey, which is showing how Islamist rule can be combined with free markets and a a form of democracy (however flawed, limited, and imperfect). This may not give much comfort to Israelis who have come to loathe Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has effectively ended his country’s close relationship with Israel and has become a steady source of anti-Israel vituperation.

But for all of his flaws, Erdogan is not building nuclear weapons and he is not sponsoring Hezbollah, as Iran is doing. (One can argue he is indirectly benefitting Hamas by sponsoring a Gaza aid flotilla and denouncing the Israeli “blockade” of Gaza–but he is not, as far as I know, providing Hamas with weapons as Iran has done.) His Turkey is a nuisance for Israel; it is not a mortal threat like the Islamic Republic of Iran. That may be the best we can hope for, at least in the immediate future, from Egypt.

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Egypt’s Uprising Has Lessons for Everyone

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.

Read More

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.

This is something of a counterintuitive assessment, to say the least. First of all, Syria is already involved in a chaotic (and bloody) civil war. Second, the “bad guys” are already prominent in that civil war–the Syrian regime’s military, at the command and control of Assad. And third, there is no indication the Syrian opposition would accept a transition in which only a handful of top officials cede power to the existing establishment. Thus, it would likely not end the civil war.

What’s happening here is the result of the tension between lessons learned and lessons lost. Assad, watching Egypt, is learning he must set the military upon the people if he is to survive, and the military is learning from Egypt it need not respect the wishes of the protesters.

The West is learning two lessons from Egypt: a rushed transition controlled by the military will likely lead to a continued military dictatorship, and the stability of autocratic regimes is a myth. That Barak is still holding on to this myth has much to do with the neighborhood in which Israel resides. The political movements with any coherent sense of mission and stable political networks in the Middle East are Islamist groups, most notably among them the Muslim Brotherhood. It has become the only serious opposition in Egypt, and it surely doesn’t help that Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood.

Barak’s concerns are understandable, but his proposed solution is a lesson lost. It is precisely the “stability” of autocrats like Hosni Mubarak that suffocated any liberal momentum among the populace, depriving it of experience and organization that could compete, perhaps, with that of the Brotherhood. As one of the two men most responsible for the defense and survival of the Jewish state in this environment, Barak is not in an enviable position at this moment. But history doesn’t dole out sympathy, just lessons.

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Another Cairo Speech

Lady Catherine Ashton is no Barack Obama, and she should be forgiven if her utterances may not generate the kind of wild adoration (adulation?!) that the U.S. president became accustomed to earning at each speech. But speeches are about the message and not only the charisma with which they are delivered, and Lady Ashton’s speech, yesterday, in Cairo, has so much substance that it deserves some comment.

There are three elements to her speech. First message: the nature and importance of the relation between Europe and the Arab world. Second message: the danger of Iran’s nuclear program. Third message: the importance and urgency of the peace process. Let’s dissect them by first quoting her words.

On relations between the EU and the Arab world, Ashton says:

I am especially pleased to be here at the headquarters of the Arab League. For Europe and the Arab world share a common history and, I believe, a common destiny. Our relations go back a long way. The footprints of your culture are scattered throughout Europe: literature and science, words and music, and of course our food.

No mention of human rights’ violations there — only a reference to orange water in Naples’ Pastiera cake and the sprinkle of Arabic in Sicilian dialect (but, presumably, not to the croissant, which was thus shaped to celebrate the Arab defeat at the Gates of Vienna). And yes, the footprint is truly scattered all over Europe: the watchtowers on the entire Mediterranean coast to warn of Arab marauders coming to kill, loot, plunder and enslave; the glorious-sounding names of battlefields like Poitiers and of naval battles like Lepanto; the early French literature of the Chanson de Roland — and many others. It all attests to conflict, war, clashes, and attempts to conquer, efface, subdue.

A common history, perhaps — but only to a certain extent. And hardly a common destiny. Like President Obama, then, Lady Ashton’s speech is an exercise in historical revisionism — papering over the inconvenient truth of the past as a way to appease our interlocutors, reminding them of a mythical time of idyllic friendship that never existed in order not to remind them of their present shortcomings: authoritarianism, social and economic injustice, human rights’ abuses, oppression of religious and ethnic minorities, gender apartheid, fomenting of hatred, condoning of terrorism, among other things. By ignoring the present and subverting the past, Lady Ashton has confirmed what the EU priorities are in the region — work with the powers that be, condone their errors as well as their horrors, ignore the broader regional context, and focus on one thing and one thing only: Israel.

This she does well, but not before she lists the perfunctory policy guidelines on Iran:

Our double track approach remains valid and we stand ready for dialogue. But the EU also fully supports the UN Security Council process on additional measures if, as is the case today, Iran continues to refuse to meet its international obligations. Our position is based on the firm belief that an Iran with nuclear weapons risks triggering a proliferation cascade throughout the Middle East. This is the last thing that this region needs.

Now that must have been exceptionally hard to pronounce. It almost sounds like a threat! How ominous, to have an EU high official (the highest one, in fact, when it comes to foreign policy) evoke the threat of a “proliferation cascade” throughout the Middle East.

So to ensure that no one became upset that the EU foreign-policy tsar was thundering, for a moment, against a Muslim nation without apologizing first, Lady Ashton threw in this closing line: “A nuclear weapons free Middle East remains a European goal.” That little reference to Israel gets everyone off the hook!

It seemed the perfectly seamless way to transition from the things she had to say pro forma and what she really wished to say:

The primary purpose of my visit is to show the continued importance that the European Union attaches to the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is a vital European interest and is central to the solution of other problems in the region.

Truly central: if you are a political prisoner languishing in an Egyptian prison and electric wires are about to be attached to your genitals for a bit of rough interrogation (surely not the one EU officials denounce on their trips to Cairo), what are the chances that you’ll feel better knowing the Palestinians will get a state? And what are the chances the police will forego this act of kindness as a result of Palestinian statehood?

Lady Ashton may not have the charisma of Barack Obama — but she can’t be so naïve as to believe that what is currently happening in Yemen is a byproduct of Palestinian-Israeli disputes; that piracy off the coast of Somalia would be called off at the announcement of a historic compromise; that al-Qaeda would lay down its weapons and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood would stop calling President Mubarak “Pharaoh” as soon as the Palestinian flag flies over the Noble Sanctuary. She must know. And so she says what she says — “central to the solution of other problems in the region” — because she is pandering to an audience of Arab autocrats.

From this we move on to the next step — one where Israeli wrongs are listed in excruciating detail and Israel’s government is slapped on the wrist repeatedly — its intentions are called into questions and its actions are blamed for lack of progress. But what of the Palestinians?

Much in the way of “the footprint of your culture” and other such rhetorical niceties, the share of responsibility the Palestinians get in the list of Lady Ashton’s no-no’s comes down to a gentle reminder to be more fraternal to one another. Just compare and contrast.

Premise of her comments on peacemaking:

Everyone has to make their contribution and take their responsibility. As the European Union we have a firm commitment to the security of Israel; and we stand up for a deal that delivers justice, freedom and dignity to the Palestinians.

The overall goal:

The parameters of a negotiated settlement are well known. A two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security.

So far, nothing too shocking. But then Ashton offers details to her vision of a negotiated settlement:

Our aim is a viable State of Palestine in the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Gaza strip, on the basis of the 1967 lines. If there is to be a genuine peace a way must be found to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of Israel and Palestine. And we need a just solution of the refugee issue.

The EU is here reiterating its bias in favor of the Palestinian position. But there is more:

Recent Israeli decisions to build new housing units in East Jerusalem have endangered and undermined the tentative agreement to begin proximity talks. …

Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible. …

The decision to list cultural and religious sites based in the occupied Palestinian territory as Israeli is counter-productive. …

The blockade of Gaza is unacceptable. It has created enormous human suffering and greatly harms the potential to move forward.

So many details of Israeli mischief! But, again, what about the Palestinians?

The Palestinians too of course have responsibilities. First however I want to commend President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad for showing us that they can build the institutions of a future Palestinian State. But the Palestinians must get their house in order. Continued Palestinian divisions do not serve their interests. The political and physical separation between Gaza and the West Bank is dangerous. Palestinian reconciliation is more crucial than ever. The PLO must take its responsibilities in this regard, and face the challenge of renewal and reform.

Yes, that’s what is wrong with the Palestinian side of the equation. They are not fraternal enough to one another and the political and physical separation of Gaza and the West Bank is dangerous — though Ashton blamed Israel for it before!

For a brief period in the long history of EU-Israel relations, it looked like the EU had finally understood that to influence Israel it had to be friendlier to Israel — not just in words but also in deeds. That included being more understanding of Israeli concerns and more nuanced about the complexities and intricacies of the Arab-Israeli conflict, its history, and its challenges.

Lady Ashton has just made it abundantly clear that Europe has reverted to its old habits of appeasing Arab authoritarianism while chastising Israeli democracy.

In a different time, we would have dismissed it all as yet another example of European irrelevance and a guarantee that only the U.S. would really have a role in being the midwife of regional peace. But now, given the United States’s substantive and rhetorical posture vis-à-vis Israel, Lady Ashton’s speech should have Jerusalem worried. There aren’t any friends left around to shield Israel from this kind of European worldview — and so it might just stick.

Lady Catherine Ashton is no Barack Obama, and she should be forgiven if her utterances may not generate the kind of wild adoration (adulation?!) that the U.S. president became accustomed to earning at each speech. But speeches are about the message and not only the charisma with which they are delivered, and Lady Ashton’s speech, yesterday, in Cairo, has so much substance that it deserves some comment.

There are three elements to her speech. First message: the nature and importance of the relation between Europe and the Arab world. Second message: the danger of Iran’s nuclear program. Third message: the importance and urgency of the peace process. Let’s dissect them by first quoting her words.

On relations between the EU and the Arab world, Ashton says:

I am especially pleased to be here at the headquarters of the Arab League. For Europe and the Arab world share a common history and, I believe, a common destiny. Our relations go back a long way. The footprints of your culture are scattered throughout Europe: literature and science, words and music, and of course our food.

No mention of human rights’ violations there — only a reference to orange water in Naples’ Pastiera cake and the sprinkle of Arabic in Sicilian dialect (but, presumably, not to the croissant, which was thus shaped to celebrate the Arab defeat at the Gates of Vienna). And yes, the footprint is truly scattered all over Europe: the watchtowers on the entire Mediterranean coast to warn of Arab marauders coming to kill, loot, plunder and enslave; the glorious-sounding names of battlefields like Poitiers and of naval battles like Lepanto; the early French literature of the Chanson de Roland — and many others. It all attests to conflict, war, clashes, and attempts to conquer, efface, subdue.

A common history, perhaps — but only to a certain extent. And hardly a common destiny. Like President Obama, then, Lady Ashton’s speech is an exercise in historical revisionism — papering over the inconvenient truth of the past as a way to appease our interlocutors, reminding them of a mythical time of idyllic friendship that never existed in order not to remind them of their present shortcomings: authoritarianism, social and economic injustice, human rights’ abuses, oppression of religious and ethnic minorities, gender apartheid, fomenting of hatred, condoning of terrorism, among other things. By ignoring the present and subverting the past, Lady Ashton has confirmed what the EU priorities are in the region — work with the powers that be, condone their errors as well as their horrors, ignore the broader regional context, and focus on one thing and one thing only: Israel.

This she does well, but not before she lists the perfunctory policy guidelines on Iran:

Our double track approach remains valid and we stand ready for dialogue. But the EU also fully supports the UN Security Council process on additional measures if, as is the case today, Iran continues to refuse to meet its international obligations. Our position is based on the firm belief that an Iran with nuclear weapons risks triggering a proliferation cascade throughout the Middle East. This is the last thing that this region needs.

Now that must have been exceptionally hard to pronounce. It almost sounds like a threat! How ominous, to have an EU high official (the highest one, in fact, when it comes to foreign policy) evoke the threat of a “proliferation cascade” throughout the Middle East.

So to ensure that no one became upset that the EU foreign-policy tsar was thundering, for a moment, against a Muslim nation without apologizing first, Lady Ashton threw in this closing line: “A nuclear weapons free Middle East remains a European goal.” That little reference to Israel gets everyone off the hook!

It seemed the perfectly seamless way to transition from the things she had to say pro forma and what she really wished to say:

The primary purpose of my visit is to show the continued importance that the European Union attaches to the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is a vital European interest and is central to the solution of other problems in the region.

Truly central: if you are a political prisoner languishing in an Egyptian prison and electric wires are about to be attached to your genitals for a bit of rough interrogation (surely not the one EU officials denounce on their trips to Cairo), what are the chances that you’ll feel better knowing the Palestinians will get a state? And what are the chances the police will forego this act of kindness as a result of Palestinian statehood?

Lady Ashton may not have the charisma of Barack Obama — but she can’t be so naïve as to believe that what is currently happening in Yemen is a byproduct of Palestinian-Israeli disputes; that piracy off the coast of Somalia would be called off at the announcement of a historic compromise; that al-Qaeda would lay down its weapons and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood would stop calling President Mubarak “Pharaoh” as soon as the Palestinian flag flies over the Noble Sanctuary. She must know. And so she says what she says — “central to the solution of other problems in the region” — because she is pandering to an audience of Arab autocrats.

From this we move on to the next step — one where Israeli wrongs are listed in excruciating detail and Israel’s government is slapped on the wrist repeatedly — its intentions are called into questions and its actions are blamed for lack of progress. But what of the Palestinians?

Much in the way of “the footprint of your culture” and other such rhetorical niceties, the share of responsibility the Palestinians get in the list of Lady Ashton’s no-no’s comes down to a gentle reminder to be more fraternal to one another. Just compare and contrast.

Premise of her comments on peacemaking:

Everyone has to make their contribution and take their responsibility. As the European Union we have a firm commitment to the security of Israel; and we stand up for a deal that delivers justice, freedom and dignity to the Palestinians.

The overall goal:

The parameters of a negotiated settlement are well known. A two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security.

So far, nothing too shocking. But then Ashton offers details to her vision of a negotiated settlement:

Our aim is a viable State of Palestine in the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Gaza strip, on the basis of the 1967 lines. If there is to be a genuine peace a way must be found to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of Israel and Palestine. And we need a just solution of the refugee issue.

The EU is here reiterating its bias in favor of the Palestinian position. But there is more:

Recent Israeli decisions to build new housing units in East Jerusalem have endangered and undermined the tentative agreement to begin proximity talks. …

Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible. …

The decision to list cultural and religious sites based in the occupied Palestinian territory as Israeli is counter-productive. …

The blockade of Gaza is unacceptable. It has created enormous human suffering and greatly harms the potential to move forward.

So many details of Israeli mischief! But, again, what about the Palestinians?

The Palestinians too of course have responsibilities. First however I want to commend President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad for showing us that they can build the institutions of a future Palestinian State. But the Palestinians must get their house in order. Continued Palestinian divisions do not serve their interests. The political and physical separation between Gaza and the West Bank is dangerous. Palestinian reconciliation is more crucial than ever. The PLO must take its responsibilities in this regard, and face the challenge of renewal and reform.

Yes, that’s what is wrong with the Palestinian side of the equation. They are not fraternal enough to one another and the political and physical separation of Gaza and the West Bank is dangerous — though Ashton blamed Israel for it before!

For a brief period in the long history of EU-Israel relations, it looked like the EU had finally understood that to influence Israel it had to be friendlier to Israel — not just in words but also in deeds. That included being more understanding of Israeli concerns and more nuanced about the complexities and intricacies of the Arab-Israeli conflict, its history, and its challenges.

Lady Ashton has just made it abundantly clear that Europe has reverted to its old habits of appeasing Arab authoritarianism while chastising Israeli democracy.

In a different time, we would have dismissed it all as yet another example of European irrelevance and a guarantee that only the U.S. would really have a role in being the midwife of regional peace. But now, given the United States’s substantive and rhetorical posture vis-à-vis Israel, Lady Ashton’s speech should have Jerusalem worried. There aren’t any friends left around to shield Israel from this kind of European worldview — and so it might just stick.

Read Less




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