Commentary Magazine


Topic: Islamists

Rule of Law Fades Further in Egypt

Given the birth pangs of democracy in the West–ranging from Cromwell’s dictatorship in Britain and the terror of the French Revolution to the bloodletting of the U.S. Civil War and two world wars–it is no surprise that the path of political progress in the Middle East is neither smooth nor easy. It is, nevertheless, dismaying to see Iraq growing increasingly unstable, Syria still in the throes of civil war with the Assad regime gradually gaining ground, and, in the largest Arab country of all, increasing chaos in Egypt.

Twelve more people died in various clashes across Egypt on Tuesday. Especially ominous was the bombing of a police headquarters in the city of Mansoura: Although only one person died and 19 others were injured, this could well be a sign that Islamist opponents of the new military-dominated regime are not going to go away quietly and will instead resort to terrorism to try to win back power.

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Given the birth pangs of democracy in the West–ranging from Cromwell’s dictatorship in Britain and the terror of the French Revolution to the bloodletting of the U.S. Civil War and two world wars–it is no surprise that the path of political progress in the Middle East is neither smooth nor easy. It is, nevertheless, dismaying to see Iraq growing increasingly unstable, Syria still in the throes of civil war with the Assad regime gradually gaining ground, and, in the largest Arab country of all, increasing chaos in Egypt.

Twelve more people died in various clashes across Egypt on Tuesday. Especially ominous was the bombing of a police headquarters in the city of Mansoura: Although only one person died and 19 others were injured, this could well be a sign that Islamist opponents of the new military-dominated regime are not going to go away quietly and will instead resort to terrorism to try to win back power.

It is an ominous sign when government spokesmen are forced to deny that Egypt will be “another Syria,” but unfortunately the military’s hardline policies are making such a result more, not less, likely. Rather than trying to reach accommodation with the Islamists, who for all their faults did win a free election, the army is demonizing them as “traitors” who must be rooted out. Dispensing with the facade of civilian rule, the military commander, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, is calling for mass protests to give the military a mandate to crack down on “terrorism” and “violence,” which, if delivered, no doubt will be interpreted as a mandate to crack down on all opposition, period.

Egypt is seeing not the rule of law but the rule of the mob and the military. Alas, history teaches that when well-organized movements with mass support are pushed out of the political process, they are likely to resort to violence. See the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, or Egypt’s own bloodletting during that decade during a war against radical jihadists.

The U.S., beating a hasty and unwise retreat from the Middle East, is not a significant factor in these developments. President Obama is trying to be as balanced as possible, refusing to curtail the $1.3 billion in military aid while stopping the shipment of four F-16s that the military wants but does not really need. Such a gesture is not likely to achieve any results beyond highlighting our ineffectuality.

It would be a supreme and dismal irony if Obama, having campaigned on a pledge that the tide of war is “receding,” presides over growing conflict not only in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan (following the post-2014 U.S. drawdown) but in Egypt as well. Instead of appointing a special envoy to broker Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, which are going nowhere, the president and his secretary of state would be well advised to focus their resources on Egypt, which will be of far greater importance to the region’s future than the tiny Palestinian lands.

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Do Islamists Want “American Freedom?”

I missed this very smart article when it first came out, but it’s well worth reading. Apropos of Alana Goodman’s comments yesterday and using Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an example, Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey’s most talented columnists, examines how so many Islamists talk about their desire to embrace “American freedom” when it suits them but ignore such freedoms when they contradict Islamist precepts. A few excerpts:

…At his party’s historic congress, the prime minister lamented once again that his daughters had to study in the U.S. because they had not been admitted to a Turkish university due to the now defunct headscarf ban on campuses. Similarly, a small Chinese-army-size army of his cheerleaders in the media have invariably hailed American democratic culture and civil liberties in the hope that these freedoms would one day blossom in Turkey too. They have glorified American freedoms and exemplified American secularism over French laicite. In short, “we wanted American freedoms in Turkey!”

Did we? Really? Why, then, was Mr. Erdogan “saddened by President Barack Obama’s remarks” that a ban on the unworthy film mocking Prophet Mohammed would violate free speech? Simple. Because the prime minister and his chorus of willing devotees adore American freedoms when American freedoms do not ban the headscarf, but hate American freedoms when American freedoms do not ban an anti-Islamic blasphemous video either.

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I missed this very smart article when it first came out, but it’s well worth reading. Apropos of Alana Goodman’s comments yesterday and using Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an example, Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey’s most talented columnists, examines how so many Islamists talk about their desire to embrace “American freedom” when it suits them but ignore such freedoms when they contradict Islamist precepts. A few excerpts:

…At his party’s historic congress, the prime minister lamented once again that his daughters had to study in the U.S. because they had not been admitted to a Turkish university due to the now defunct headscarf ban on campuses. Similarly, a small Chinese-army-size army of his cheerleaders in the media have invariably hailed American democratic culture and civil liberties in the hope that these freedoms would one day blossom in Turkey too. They have glorified American freedoms and exemplified American secularism over French laicite. In short, “we wanted American freedoms in Turkey!”

Did we? Really? Why, then, was Mr. Erdogan “saddened by President Barack Obama’s remarks” that a ban on the unworthy film mocking Prophet Mohammed would violate free speech? Simple. Because the prime minister and his chorus of willing devotees adore American freedoms when American freedoms do not ban the headscarf, but hate American freedoms when American freedoms do not ban an anti-Islamic blasphemous video either.

He continues:

It is not a secret that Islamists always defend pluralism and minority rights in lands where Muslims are a minority and strictly practice majoritarianism where they constitute the majority. Looks like a smart strategy, but fails to impress. A decade ago, the same strategy, if put in a nice gift wrap, could have found buyers among the West’s “useful idiots,” but these days there are only a few enthusiasts and many who shrug it off, thinking it is too obviously childish and selfish.

Alas, while those facing the imposition of Islamist mores by intolerant rulers now believe that the West’s “useful idiots” have fallen by the wayside and  “only a few enthusiasts” ignore the hypocrisy inherent in Islamist complaints, they are wrong: Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati donations to universities like Georgetown, Columbia, and Harvard ensure that new generations of useful idiots accept the “childish and selfish” as smart and sophisticated.

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Islamists Threaten Insurgency Should Secularists Win Egypt Election

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.

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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.

One-in-three Middle Eastern Arabs live in Egypt. Unfortunately, it looks like the Nile may once again flow with blood.

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Muslim Brotherhood Goes Hardline

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.

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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.

And now here is State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland last March, downplaying the rise of Islamists in Egypt. Obama had spent months punting on the issue, and the administration found itself needing to get out of grim news cycle after news cycle. The result was a pattern of willful denial, including these unblinking statements about the Egyptian Constitution panel:

“We’re not going to prejudge, obviously, the work of this [Constitutional] panel,” Nuland said… “This panel is from the elected parliament, so having been elected democratically, it’s now their obligation to uphold and defend and protect the democratic rights that brought them to power in the first place.”

Egypt’s presidential candidates, who recently sparred in a televised debate about who will implement sharia more, seem to part ways with Nuland over liberal democratic rights. So do the Egyptian courts. So does the Egyptian public. The question arises – as usual – whether the administration is being unblinkingly dishonest or mindblowingly naive.

Populist Islamism would be less of a problem if there were any Egyptian checks left on religiously-motivated violence. Egypt’s Christians are openly predicting that the status quo – which already involves anti-Christian attacks committed with uttery legal impunity – is going to seem bucolic compared to the post-election environment. And of course, anti-Semitism is so deeply ingrained that political operatives go on TV to accuse journalists of being Jews: “I intend to file charges against you tomorrow and you will have to prove otherwise.” Charming.

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Islamists Seek Vengeance

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.”

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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.”

In Turkey, too, Islamists are turning their attention to vengeance. In Turkey, accusation rather than evidence is enough to put anyone in prison. Less than 50 percent of those arrested are ever found guilty, but given the absence of bail, most rot in prison for years before their court dates. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Obama’s friend and confidante, has used this to full advantage. He has used the amorphous Ergenekon plot—more fiction than fact—to accuse past political opponents of malfeasance starting with the man who had faced him in mayoral elections in the 1990s. In recent weeks, the government has begun arresting those involved in pressuring the Islamist party of Erdoğan’s late mentor Necmettin Erbakan to resign. Never mind that the reason for Erbakan’s resignation was his efforts to overturn the constitutionalist order, and that those who urged Erbakan to resign were acting within the law at the time.

While European (and American) diplomats have reconciled the crackdown to the fact that many of those arrested were military officers—as if this exempts them fair targets for a venal prime minister—there are clear signals that civilians are now front-and-center and de facto government mouthpieces like Cengiz Çandar are naming civilians for police to target. There are also signs in the Turkish press that Erdoğan, the Putin of Anatolia, will also move against retired generals like Yaşar Büyükanıt for the crime of issuing a statement urging the government to adhere to the constitution. This was against the backdrop of senior aides like Bülent Arınç, now Erdogan’s chief deputy, to dissolve the constitutional court if it continued to rule against his legislation.

Obama’s worldview may have no place for men like Emam, but his crime was simply to use non-violent means to delegitimize the ideas and actions of a violent Islamist fringe responsible for the deaths of hundreds during Egypt’s Islamist insurgency. The world needs more satire, not less.

Nor may Obama like men such as Bir and Büyükanıt, but these generals were staunch allies who stood by the United States during the Cold War and who fulfilled their sworn duties to maintain the checks and balances within the Turkish system. Friendship should mean something; the United States should not simply sit back silently as a megalomaniacal ruler on borrowed time seeks vengeance upon anyone who has opposed him and his increasingly undemocratic agenda. Turkey may be a model, but it certainly is not one that the White House should want any state to follow. Rather than sit silently, it is time the White House speaks up for dissidents, whether they be blind Chinese activists, Egyptian comic actors, or Turkish generals.

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Thank Israel, U.S. For Nuke-Free Regimes

If I were a Syrian rebel I’d be very appreciative of Israeli military might. Without Israel’s Operation Orchard, the 2007 airstrike on Bashar al-Assad’s nuclear reactor in eastern Syria, the dictator in Damascus would now be deterring any pro-rebel outside influence with a nuclear bomb. And depending on how bad things got for his regime, he might find his way to pushing the button. Toppled dictators like to take their walks of shame with big fiery bangs.

It’s amazing how despised preemptive action on the part of democracies ends up looking like a blessing when crises hit. Without the American invasion of Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi would have had an extensive WMD arsenal at his disposal while his regime unraveled last year. In March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom woke him up to the consequences of WMD subterfuge and he gave up his program later in the year. So if not for Israeli and American preemptive action, the Arab Spring might very well have been far more deadly and destabilizing than it already is.

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If I were a Syrian rebel I’d be very appreciative of Israeli military might. Without Israel’s Operation Orchard, the 2007 airstrike on Bashar al-Assad’s nuclear reactor in eastern Syria, the dictator in Damascus would now be deterring any pro-rebel outside influence with a nuclear bomb. And depending on how bad things got for his regime, he might find his way to pushing the button. Toppled dictators like to take their walks of shame with big fiery bangs.

It’s amazing how despised preemptive action on the part of democracies ends up looking like a blessing when crises hit. Without the American invasion of Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi would have had an extensive WMD arsenal at his disposal while his regime unraveled last year. In March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom woke him up to the consequences of WMD subterfuge and he gave up his program later in the year. So if not for Israeli and American preemptive action, the Arab Spring might very well have been far more deadly and destabilizing than it already is.

This all leads to the question of Iran. Of the many nightmare scenarios that could be birthed by a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic, the one that gets the least attention is arguably the most likely. Eventually, that thug regime will go the way of its neighbors and fall.  Indeed, the Arab Spring had a decidedly Persian kickoff. In June 2009, millions of Iranians took to the streets to demand justice in the wake of fixed presidential elections. There is no if about the fall of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And when it happens, does the world really want the mullahs who’ve been preaching Armageddon for three decades to have nuclear weapons? Leave aside the prospect of an Iranian-Israeli nuclear exchange, the misery of an Iranian-Saudi nuclear arms race, and the regional domination of a nuclear blackmailing Tehran. Peace-loving, America-fearing progressives better get their stories straight for the day the mullahs find out their time is up. If the Khomeinists face that prospect with nuclear weapons at their disposal, they’re likely to make Saddam Hussein’s exploding-oil-field retreat in 1991 look like a bunch of bonfires.

“We will destroy you all, even if we ourselves die in the process,” Ayatollah Khomeini said. “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah,” he offered on another occasion. “For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” Having watched one Arab Spring regime after another elect Islamists into office, the theocrats in Tehran will likely feel secure in the triumph of radical Islam before they self-immolate.

There are things much worse than Western military action. Foremost among them are those things that only Western military action can prevent or stop. Just ask the Syrians. It’s so bad for them they might even tell you the truth.

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