The American reaction to the revolution in Egypt has been one of a forced smile, the kind a father might wear as he marries his daughter off to a man he doesn’t trust. Hillary Clinton heightened this metaphor when she referred to Hosni Mubarak, the retirement fast-tracked dictator of Egypt, as “family” last week. Joe Biden, never one to put too fine a point on the philosophical is/ought distinction, said that Mubarak wasn’t a dictator at all and therefore was under no obligation to step down after 30 years in power. Yet as countless Egyptians are tear-gassed with canisters that read “Made in the USA,” many must be wondering what President Obama meant in Cairo two years ago when he said: “Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.”
Seldom has a post-9/11 episode more starkly expressed the central contradiction of U.S. foreign policy, namely what to do when our clients abroad default like our banks have at home. A post-Mubarak age will no doubt bring some measure of democracy and transparency to Egyptian politics, but it remains to be seen who the beneficiaries of this new system will be or how they’ll mesh with their own people in the long term, much less with ours in the short. This is a serious concern for principled democracy promoters who fret as much about women’s and minorities’ rights as they do about elections. The question to ask now is not 'Who lost Egypt?' but rather how the United States failed to help Egypt reclaim itself.
It’s an ominous sign when the only ones acting calmly during cataclysmic events are the foreign policy realists, those ever fearful about a loss of regional “stability.” Yet we’re already hearing from this quarter soft apologetics for the Muslims Brotherhood, ideological incubator of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Hamas, and the only properly organized, if outlawed, opposition movement in Egypt. The Brotherhood’s actual clout is hard to gauge at this point, but it seems likely that the party will feature inevitably in any new Cairo government.
And so the revisionism. The Brotherhood aren’t all bad, they’ve grown pragmatic and “moderate” with age. They’d be tolerant pluralists in a proper parliamentary democracy, a la Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, not theocratic putschists trying to kick-start another caliphate on the Nile. Former CIA agent and sometime Obama advisor Bruce Riedel is sanguine: “Living with [the Brotherhood] won’t be easy,” he writes, “but it should not be seen as inevitably our enemy. We need not demonize it nor endorse it.”
And he’s right. Why demonize the Brotherhood when you can quote them?
Responding to a 2006 Egyptian court ruling which allowed the Bahai in Egypt to carry citizen cards identifying their religion, Brotherhood deputies in parliament lost their temper. According to the journal Current Trends in Islamist Ideology: “Quoting a hadith attributed to the Prophet Mohammed to support their position, [the deputies] declared that they would draft a law making Baha’ism a crime and branding the Baha’is apostates,” who should then be killed.
The media, too, has done an admirable job of giving a Panglossian view of an 80-year-old Islamist movement. The BBC has twice posted a flattering profile of the Brotherhood onto its website, claiming that they reject violence and support democratic principles.
The Brotherhood are more intelligible to their constituency than they evidently are to Western news organizations and intelligence analysts. I quote from their English-language website from 2007: “Al Banna’s [Muslim Brotherhood founder] thought expressed an early and advanced state of maturity in the dialectics of the relation between the project of the Islamic revival and the liberation of Palestine, as he saw that solving the Palestinian cause will be with [sic] through the paralleled lines of unity and jihad.”
Pedants here might wish to split hairs between jihad the inner spiritual struggle and jihad the bus-exploding, widow-making variety. But again, the Brotherhood deploy no euphemism on their website: “Ahmed Yassin [the founder of Hamas] was not a terrorist,” they proudly declare of a known terrorist.
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.