The Egyptian events seem, on
the face of it, fairly straightforward: a tyrant in office
for 30 years, propped up by fulsome US support and a very efficient
secret police apparatus, faces a full-scale revolution by his brutalized
subjects, who are – finally! – enraged-beyond-endurance and
just can’t take it anymore. A million people in the streets of Cairo
are telling us this story, and one would think the wise thing to do
would be to take their word for it.
But that’s hardly sufficient
for some US commentators, who have their own agendas – and their own
narratives to sell. While the number of wacky theories is perhaps equal
to the number of wacky web sites out there – a figure which we cannot
even begin to calculate – there are two major “alternative” narratives
which have taken the lion’s share of the attention, and therefore
The first, and most pernicious, is the Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy theory, which holds that this deeply conservative and reified sect, which has been around since 1928, is “really” the driving force behind the movement to overthrow Mubarak. This is the theory being put out there by the Fox News network (Judge Andrew Napolitano of “Freedom Watch” excepted), the neoconservative usual suspects, and the Israel Lobby. Acting as a kind of human bullhorn for these groups, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton – who looks likely to launch a quixotic presidential bid – had this to say to Fox News:
“I think the question is whether and to what extent the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamists have infiltrated the leadership. If the military holds firm it’s entirely possible, although bloody, that the government can hold onto power. That doesn’t necessarily mean Mubarak will be in power, but the military will be, and I think that is why this contrast makes it so important for people to understand, this is not a choice between the Mubarak government on one hand, and sweetness and light, Jeffersonian democracy on the other.
“I don’t think we have evidence yet that these demonstrations are necessarily about democracy. You know the old saying, ‘one person, one vote, one time.’ The Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t care about democracy, if they get into power you’re not going to have free and fair elections either.”
Notice, first, how fact-free this all is: if we don’t “have evidence yet that these demonstrations are necessarily about democracy,” then what is the evidence they are about Islamism? The Brotherhood, as widely noted, came late to the protests, abstaining from participation until the broadness and depth of the movement became apparent. Joel Benin, in his commentary on ForeignPolicy.com, notes:
“As usual, Egypt’s opposition parties were ineffectual. The so-called ‘left’ Tagammu’ Party refused to endorse the demonstrations out of appreciation for the police (January 25 is Police Day in Egypt). The pro-business Wafd Party never announced a clear position. Ghad (Tomorrow) Party leader Ayman Nour, who won seven percent of the vote in the 2005 presidential elections, did support the demonstrations. The physically frail Nour was beaten by police and ended up in the hospital on January 25. His party, however, is split and not particularly popular.
“The Muslim Brotherhood, widely acknowledged as the largest and best organized opposition force in the country, abstained from the January 25 demonstrations, but belatedly endorsed the January 28 demonstrations. Perhaps as a result of this waffling there has been almost no Islamic content to the demonstrations. The tone has mostly been nationalist and secular.”
The old opposition, including the Brotherhood, didn’t initiate the demonstrations, which raises the question: well then, who did?
The April 6 Youth movement, founded by Ahmed Salah and Ahmed Maher, is a tech-savvy group of loosely-associated bloggers and activists who were earlier associated with campaigns to free imprisoned journalists and bloggers, support labor actions, and organize protests over Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, it was the April 6’ers who initiated the demonstrations that culminated in the “march of millions”: the other opposition groups clambered on board as the movement took off and grew to include virtually every sector of Egyptian society. Its founders and leaders have been continually harassed and many were arrested, and yet they endured and became the catalyzing force for Egypt’s democratic revolution. Neither a political party, nor even an ideological grouping, they are united around the- demands for civil liberties, freedom of speech and association, and the opening up of Egypt’s sclerotic authoritarian system.
The John Boltons of this world imagine these youngsters will soon be pushed aside, along with Mohamed ElBaradei, whose leadership they have coalesced around: Bolton & Co. liken ElBaradei to Kerensky, with the Brotherhood in the role of the Leninists. Yet what is happening in Egypt – and across North Africa and the Middle East – is a lot closer to 1989 than 1917.
The Russian Revolution was a violent paroxysm, in which many lives were lost: in 1989, however, when Lenin’s heirs were finally overthrown, hardly a shot was fired. The huge and practically simultaneous rising against the Stalinist regimes of the Warsaw Pact was remarkably nonviolent: there was no Tiananmen moment, no gunfire – just the eerily hollow sound of a doomed empire imploding. This is precisely what is happening in Egypt today: a massive nonviolent movement for change is defeating a heavily-armed yet apparently impotent State apparatus, in the streets and in the minds of men.
The Brotherhood is a well-established presence in Egypt, which, for a time, the US and its Egyptian sock puppets were allied with during the cold war era, as a bulwark against Nasserite and pro-Soviet socialist groupings. As Robert Dreyfuss points out in his book Devil’s Game:
“In Egypt, Anwar Sadat brought the Muslim Brotherhood back to Egypt. In Syria, the United States, Israel, and Jordan supported the Muslim Brotherhood in a civil war against Syria. And, as described in a groundbreaking chapter in Devil’s Game, Israel quietly backed Ahmed Yassin and the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank and Gaza, leading to the establishment of Hamas.”
For all the scaremongering about the Brotherhood by the neoconservative right, the reality is that the group moderated its policies long ago, renouncing violence, running election campaigns, and declaring the compatibility of Islam and democratic civil society: for this they are regularly denounced by al-Qaeda. Even the more intelligent neocons recognize the Brotherhood will inevitably be a part of the democratic mosaic if the Middle East is to be modernized and lured away from real extremism. As Reuel Marc Gerecht puts it in The Islamic Paradox:
“Many Israelis and their American supporters may rise in horror contemplating replacing peace-treaty-signing dictators with fundamentalists who may partly build a democratic consensus on anti-Zionism. But down this uneasy path lies an end to bin Ladenism and the specter of an American city attacked with weapons of mass destruction.”
The Brotherhood will no doubt be a factor in post-Mubarak Egypt, but hardly a decisive one: that role belongs to the rising middle classes and the culture of modernity that has been unleashed by the new technology.
Much more significant than hyped fears of a Brotherhood takeover, however, is the subtext of this fear campaign, which is all about regime change being bad for Israel. A new government, no matter how liberal on the surface, and how US-friendly it may turn out, is bound to be less friendly to Israel, and certainly far less willing to keep the Palestinians penned up in Gaza.
This is true – but so what? The Israelis have long since killed the much-touted “peace process,” and proceeded with their plan to colonize the West Bank. And it’s quite telling that the Palestinian Authority, at the height of the Egyptian events, sent a message of solidarity – to Mubarak! So much for their credibility as legitimate representatives of Arab people.
The Egyptian government, post-Mubarak, is not likely to attack Israel: indeed, the fear is that the Israelis may very well attack Egypt in a preemptive strike. And the Israelis, need I remind you, are armed with nuclear weapons: surely that is the wildest wild card in the Middle East mix, more volatile than anything the Brotherhood has in its arsenal.
This concatenation of events in the Middle East underscores what has been evident for some time: that Israeli and American interests, far from being complementary, are counterposed. The uprising is not a disaster for the US and its legitimate interests – Egypt has many economic and cultural ties to the United States, which are not about to be easily severed – but Israel has good reason to worry.
By supporting Mubarak – indeed, urging other nations to tamp down their criticism of the Egyptian despot – and believing in the myth of his invincibility right up until the last moment, the Israelis have pretty much killed any chance of good relations with the government that emerges. Jordan, too – another collaborator with Tel Aviv – is feeling the effects of the regional revolution, and may yet experience a similar convulsion. That the Israelis made their security dependent on an enduring Arab despotism is a strategic error that will cost them dearly. But whose fault is that?
Harping on the Brotherhood and its secondary role in the Egyptian upsurge is the chief “alternative” narrative now floating about, the last refuge of neocons and Islamophobes who are wedded to their narrow worldview in spite of the facts. There is another narrative, however, another sort of conspiracy theory, which some on the right have embraced, which posits that the United States government, and not the Brotherhood or al-Qaeda, is the real force behind Egypt’s revolutionary wave. And, no, I’m not kidding.
An article that appeared early on in the Telegraph, headlined “America’s Secret Backing for Rebel Leaders Behind Uprising,” appears to be the genesis of this ‘theory.” It starts out by citing a “secret document” that supposedly shows how Washington, inexplicably, decided to create a crisis for itself by undermining Mubarak:
“The American government secretly backed leading figures behind the Egyptian uprising who have been planning ‘regime change’ for the past three years, The Daily Telegraph has learned. The American Embassy in Cairo helped a young dissident attend a US-sponsored summit for activists in New York, while working to keep his identity secret from Egyptian state police.
“On his return to Cairo in December 2008, the activist told US diplomats that an alliance of opposition groups had drawn up a plan to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak and install a democratic government in 2011. The disclosures, contained in previously secret US diplomatic dispatches released by the WikiLeaks website, show American officials pressed the Egyptian government to release other dissidents who had been detained by the police.
“…In a secret diplomatic dispatch, sent on December 30 2008, Margaret Scobey, the US Ambassador to Cairo, recorded that opposition groups had allegedly drawn up secret plans for ‘regime change’ to take place before elections, scheduled for September this year.
“It said the activist claimed ‘several opposition forces’ had ‘agreed to support an unwritten plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, involving a weakened presidency and an empowered prime minister and parliament, before the scheduled 2011 presidential elections.’ The embassy’s source said the plan was ‘so sensitive it cannot be written down.’
“Ambassador Scobey questioned whether such an ‘unrealistic’ plot could work, or ever even existed. However, the documents showed that the activist had been approached by US diplomats and received extensive support for his pro-democracy campaign from officials in Washington. The embassy helped the campaigner attend a ‘summit’ for youth activists in New York, which was organised by the US State Department.”
Midway throught the text, we are invited to view the “secret documents” for ourselves – which consist merely of the WikiLeaks cable, copied and pasted onto the Telegraph web site. A thorough examination of the cable reveals, not a US plot, but the complete indifference of the Americans to the plot – indeed, it shows, to an embarrassing degree, just how clueless and out of touch American diplomats and government officials were (and are).
The April 6 activist discussed in the cable – probably Maher – did indeed attend a “youth summit” organized by the US State Department, but about the only thing the US government did was protect his identity while he attended the conference, and lobby Mubarak to let jailed bloggers go, as they have been doing in any case. The cable goes on to report:
described how he tried to convince his Washington interlocutors that
the USG should pressure the GOE [Government of Egypt] to implement significant
reforms by threatening to reveal information about GOE officials’ alleged
“illegal” off-shore bank accounts. He hoped that the
U.S. and the international community would freeze these bank accounts,
like the accounts of Zimbabwean President Mugabe’s confidantes.
XXXXXXXXXXXX said he wants to convince the USG that Mubarak is worse
than Mugabe and that the GOE will never accept democratic reform. XXXXXXXXXXXX
asserted that Mubarak derives his legitimacy from U.S. support, and
therefore charged the U.S. with ‘being responsible’ for Mubarak’s ‘crimes.’ He accused NGOs working on political and economic
reform of living in a ‘fantasy world,’ and not recognizing
that Mubarak – ‘the head of the snake’ – must step aside to enable
democracy to take root.”
One can’t imagine that any
of this sat very well with our placid and oh-so-proper diplomats, and
indeed it did not. In a comment appended to the report of the interview,
the State Department is advised by our Ambassador:
no roadmap of concrete steps toward April 6’s highly unrealistic goal
of replacing the current regime with a parliamentary democracy prior
to the 2011 presidential elections. Most opposition parties and
independent NGOs work toward achieving tangible, incremental reform
within the current political context, even if they may be pessimistic
about their chances of success. XXXXXXXXXXXX’s wholesale rejection
of such an approach places him outside the mainstream of opposition
politicians and activists.”
In other words, they told him:
Get lost, kid, and come back when you grow up and learn to live
with despotism. Fortunately, he didn’t listen.
From from showing that the
Egyptian uprising is a CIA plot to get rid of a longtime client, the
cable shows the complete incompetence and moral blindness of the Obama
administration and the US diplomatic corps in general. Meeting with
a few members of Congress and their staffs, and attending a couple of
think-tank seminars, does not quite constitute a secret plot. From the
looks of things, it doesn’t seem like the Americans even put up his
airfare for the “youth summit,” because he complains that due to
lack of funds he won’t be able to attend the next one. Nor does the
cable mention that US diplomats approached or sought out members of
the April 6 movement in any way: instead, they were considered marginal
boat-rockers, bound to come to a bad end.
Disabused of any notion that
the US government is a force for good in the world, the young
activist returned to Egypt and helped organize an “unrealistic”
movement that is now on the verge of a resounding victory – and the
US is caught completely flat-footed. Some US “plot”!
What these two seemingly contradictory
narratives have in common is that they both assign the Egyptian people
to, at best, a supporting role in the events now unfolding before our
eyes. The neocons tells us that the Brotherhood is the secret manipulator
pulling the strings behind the scenes, while others insist the long
arm of the US State Department (and, presumably, the CIA) is the hidden
hand behind Mubarak’s ouster. Both “theories” are nonsense.
What we are seeing in Egypt
is not the result of the machinations of shadowy groups, either state
actors or sinister jihadists: it is the explosion created by the pent
up energy and anger of an entire generation of Egyptians who see how
a (relatively) free society in the West lives and works, and wants the
same for their long-suffering nation. Like the East Germans, the Russians,
and all the citizens of the “captive nations” in the old Soviet
bloc, the Egyptians are rising against the complacency and Stockholm
Syndrome that was eating away at the very heart of their society and
destroying their souls.
Is that really so hard to understand?