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Egypt, America, and the Muslim Brotherhood?

2:00 PM, Jan 31, 2011 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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Opposed to the complacent commentaries, the excellent Iranian historian Abbas Milani has remarked on how Obama is missing his one chance to win the sympathy of the secular and liberal Egyptian masses—just as Jimmy Carter missed his in Iran in 1979. The Ayatollah Khomeini, too, tricked himself out in public as a big-tent liberal democrat, all the while plotting his theocratic coup. “More than once he promised that not a single cleric would hold a position of power in the future government,” Milani writes in the New Republic. “But once in power, he created the current clerical despotism. And when, in June 2009, three million people took to the streets of Tehran to protest decades of oppression, they were brutally suppressed.”

The fact that the Brotherhood have held back so far, not taking charge of the demonstrations or even issuing pamphlets, may be an encouraging sign. Ditto their appointment of Mohamed ElBaradei as the united opposition’s spokesman, a choice that, according to the New York Times, the Brotherhood took to present the least frightening, least Islamist face to the West.  However, these gestures can also be read as the tactical cunning of a disciplined militant group. Scholars of totalitarianism used to call such force-marshaling periods of quiet ones of “terror-in-reserve.”

Indeed, the Brotherhood is very likely waiting to see if Mubarak can hang on a bit longer or whether the United States will come to his last-minute rescue. The Egyptians, for their part, have already taken their revolt too far.  The Washington Post reported yesterday that Tahrir Square, the seat of Cairo’s unrest, saw a joint action of protestors and soldiers working together to halt the entrance of two Interior Ministry vehicles:

A tank commander then scaled his vehicle and announced to the crowd that the Interior Ministry, which operates the nation's police force, had deployed thousands of armed men who were bent on sowing chaos in Egypt.

The army, he said, “would stand with the people.”

We don’t need Al Jazeera or even Michael Corleone in Havana to tell us what this means:

Along with shouts of “Down with the police!” was heard oftener and  oftener a “Hurrah!” addressed to the Cossacks. That was significant. Toward the police the crowd showed ferocious hatred. They routed the mounted police with whistles, stones, and pieces of ice. In a totally different way the workers approached the soldiers. Around the barracks, sentinels, patrols and lines of soldiers stood groups of working men and women exchanging friendly words with the army men. This was a new stage, due to the growth of the strike and the personal meeting of the worker with the army. Such a stage is inevitable in every revolution. But it always seems new, and does in fact occur differently every time: those who have read and written about it do not recognize the thing when they see it.

So wrote Leon Trotsky, in 1930, of the February Revolution of 1917—when the czarist gendarmerie were also scorned as “pharaohs.” In April, Lenin returned to a hero’s welcome in St. Petersburg. In October, the Bolsheviks seized the Kremlin without a shot being fired.

Michael Weiss is the executive director of Just Journalism, a London-based think tank that monitors the British media's coverage of Israel and the Middle East. 

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