Tag Archives: Mubarak

Egypt: “mind” or “mouth’?


It’s impossible to tell whether it is infection from the hysterical Mideast Arabic and English commentaries on radio and TV. Or is it twaddle the result of misunderstanding of the complexity of the issues? Whatever, our talking heads are more than usually befuddled about events in Egypt. And they are lending further confusion to an already impossibly muddled situation with Obama Administration attempts to straddle the unstraddable.

No, “democracy” was not overthrown in Egypt, nor can it be restored with the ouster of the present puppet government established by the military. “Democracy” is not simply elections, however fairly they may be managed – and we in the U.S. know something about the difficulties of that. It requires a whole set of values, not the least, the concept of the individual and his right to his own thoughts and, in so far as he does not harm others, actions. That has rarely if ever existed anywhere in the Arab-Muslim world – except perhaps for a brief glimpse of it, ironically, under what is now Pakistan in late British colonial days. [Now, for example, in Pakistan proselytizing for a religion other than Islam, and that is often interpreted in exaggerated ways, brings the death sentence. A leading political figure was not only assassinated for advocating its amendment two years ago but his confessed murderer was cheered in courtroom scenes — by lawyers!]

Nor is it likely democracy will come any time soon to any Arab country. Even in Malaysia and Indonesia, far distant from Islam’s Arab origins, whatever exists by way of progress toward it hangs by a thread. Nor notwithstanding Pres. Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, never did widespread tolerance exist in Islamic history — certainly not in the supposed halcyon years of al Andalus, the Berber kingdoms of southern Spain There pogroms against Jews and Christians [despite extensive intermarriage and the use of minority members as court ministers] dot its relatively short history. That’s why Moses Maimonedes, one of the world’s most renowned philosophers and physicians, a Jewish scholar writing in Arabic, in the 12th century fled his native Cordoba – eventually landing in Egypt, no less – to save his life.

But Mohammed Morsi, the ousted Egyptian president, would not have welcomed Maimonedes, given his expressed hatred for non-Muslims. Despite his followers’ claims, he was not “democratically elected” [as wikipedia would have it]. He won a minority victory as the best organized political force in hastily arranged elections after a half century of Hosni Mubarak’s military dictatorship.. Nor is he a democrat despite the claims of his followers – many of whom have been attending “peaceful demonstrations” with Kalashnikovs for attacks on their opponents and police stations. He is a leader of a longtime secret society – kept underground by successive Egyptian regimes for three  generations. It is dedicated to establishing a monolithic Islamic state in a country with more claim to “multiculturalism” than any in history.

The trail of Morsi’s Brotherhood is a long history of assasinations and attacks, for example, on Egypt’s 15 to 18 million Coptic Christians and destruction of their churches. [Ask former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Christian married to a Jew, whose grandfather, Boutros Ghali, as prime minister of Egypt under the British “protectorate”, was assassinated in 1910 by a member of a pan-Islamic party, ancestor of the Brotherhood.]

Must one excuse the excesses of the military regime in its effort to return Cairo, Alexandria and Suez [on the Canal, critically sensitive to world trade, by the way] to some sort of stability? Anyone who knows Cairo knows that is a relative term in the best of times. No, but there are “mitigating circumstances” by Mideast standards: the whole country was headed for immediate economic collapse, even famine with 70% of its food imported. The military’s effort to disassemble Brotherhood encampments in strategic areas and neuter opposition to the succeeding [called an interim] regime was absolutely necessary to avoid total chaos.

Never mind Morsi’s vile, vituperative public pronouncements [only in Arabic] cursing Jews and other “infidels”. [As Anwar Sadat, the martyred Egyptian leader, assassinated by an offshoot of the Brotherhood in 1981, once said in reply to a question about some outrageous statement by another Arab leader, “Oh! You know how we Arabs talk!”] But Morsi thorough manipulation of a “constitution” almost instantly arrived at was steering the country toward “sharia”, rule under Islamic religious law.

Now with sharia as with so many Islamic concepts, you can have your pick. It has been defined and runs the gamut from the “tolerant” ways of the late Ottoman Empire which generally only imposed fines and other legal restrictions on its vast non-Muslim population. The name for those non-Muslims to whom this whole set of Islamic “values” is applied is dhimmis. But just like everything else in Islam, it has been differently interpreted from Dakar to Zamboanga. But whatever else it means, it is second class citizenship – a concept that simply does not square with democracy. In more “effective” enforcement, Yemeni Jews were required to observe special obeisant movements whenever encountering Muslims despite their industriousness which was essential to the impoverished south Arabian region functioning.

Sharia often includes treating women as chattel, permitting divorce without the wife’s consent by simply uttering the words, “I divorce thee”, three times. Sharia often includes punishments long outlawed in more civilized societies – more than 200 years ago by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as “cruel and unusual punishment”. Where Muslims rule with sharia, as in Saudi Arabia, chopping off a hand, or fingers instead, for theft is a subject worthy of intense religious speculation. Christians in their worst arguments talked of how many angels danced on the head of a pin or who was a witch to be burned at the stake, but that is now centuries past. Israeli Orthodox Jews still do argue against drafting yeshiva students of “the law” for military service.. That is not to say that there has not been Islamic jurisprudence as studied and as sage as any in the world, particularly in the old Persia and in India, but it is not what Morsi was about.

Or take “jihad”. Central Intelligence Director John O. Brennan publicly has defined it as the search in Islam for salvation. Yes, in the Arabist scholarly circles he navigates, Brennan – known in some circles as Brennan of Arabia – is correct. But it also has been the battle cry for more than 15 centuries in the Islamicists’ efforts to conquer the world, and subject it to a “caliphate” – again a word with a dozen meanings but generally a unified Islamic political state under an absolute Muslim ruler. The fact is that neither the historical Zoroaster, Abraham, Mosses, Jesus, Gautama nor Confucius, founders of the great mass religions, were soldiers. Mohammed according to the holy book of Islam, the Koran, apparently was and a very bloody and successful one..

All of this was in the quiver of Morsi as “the duly elected” chief executive of Egypt. It turned out that most Egyptians, perhaps, for we will never know, but seemingly the bulk of those politically active, did not endorse this program. And then the head of the military, originally chosen by Morsi, apparently because he once wrote a thesis with Islamicist overtones when he was studying under the auspices of  the American military at Leavenworth, overthrew the Morsi Administration. His action appeared to have, even by the most critical observers, the assent of the majority of Cairenes, if not that of the American State Department again left out in the cold.

Morsi and his followers refused to bow out for hadn’t they, they said, supported by the anti-anti-anti-Islamic spokesmen in the U.S. and Europe, acting as an echo chamber, stood for “democracy” The answer is obviously “no”.

So we have come full circle: are the talking heads and a couple of Senators confusing the issues? Are the analyses on the hour by National Public Radio, The New York Times, along with the White House statements, just contaminated with the incredibly paranoid and hysterical rhetoric of the Middle East? Or have they, like so many increasingly ill-educated young Americans, lost touch with the English language and its definitions?

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Revolution and common sense



A revolution is not a tea party”. -Mao Tse-tung

Every revolutionary ends up by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic. –Albert Camus

All revolutions devour their own children.-Ernst Röhm

Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder. –George Bernard Shaw

In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end. –Alexis de Tocqueville

Historians will have to evaluate how much Obama Administration’s denigration of American power and prestige contributed to Egypt’s chaotic crisis. But led by an often untutored media seeking sensation at whatever cost, and Al Jazeera beating the jihadist drums, U.S. Mideast policy waffles and meddles beyond its competence.

The American tendency is not only ahistorical, but antihistorical. After all, our forebears came to escape their European, Latin American and Asian – even African – histories. Nothing could be further from the American experience than Egypt’s multimillennial suffocating cultural “overburden”. To further alienate Americans from context, the world has moved to instantaneous electronic transmissions. Images and tweets replace studies and serious journalism – and contemplation.

That’s why it might be well to lean back and view unpredictable events with more dispassion — and, yes, common sense. [I like the Oxford English Dictionary’s No. 2 definition: “xxx the plain wisdom which is everyone’s inheritance xxx”.]

America’s role and national interest.

Egypt’s burgeoning 80 million people has been for centuries the center of Sunni Islam; Cairo, heart of the larger Arab world with its vast petroleum resources [only gas in Egypt]. With feeble economic, cultural and physical infrastructure, the Arab and Persian petrosheikhs now levy a “tax” on the world economy [as former Sec. of Treasury William Simon rationalized.] Therefore, Egypt’s stability inherently demands Washington’s highest priority.

As Biggest Boy on the Block, the U.S. is both envied and courted, not least by Egypt. Washington struck a bargain with its annual $2 billion aid package – a bribe to keep Egypt’s military on the straight and narrow. Cairo was to modernize, bolster regional moderates, help secure the world oil supply and prevent attacks on Israel. Not least, it guarded Suez Canal passage for 80% of world commercial traffic.

Those dollars and weapons have undoubtedly helped; Pres. Hosni Mubarak, whatever else, has cooperated to stem worldwide Islamic terrorism. But no person, no nation, likes dole, certainly not Egypt with its fabled history. So “anti-Americanism” is endemic.

But current idiocies include polling – which, of course, has been so accurate in the U.S.! Does that little lady with a clipboard asking questions in an authoritarian society with a secret police wear a burka? Are “Westernized” elites or illiterate subsistence farmers measured?

Poverty, insecurity and lifestyle.

Most Egyptians have no safety net beyond extended family, living with greater insecurity than Americans have known since the Civil War. With population doubling during Mubarak’s 30-year rule, a third now under 14, unemployment is staggering. [That’s why early demonstrators were mostly adolescents.] Egypt would have to generate 450,000 new jobs annually just to keep its current unemployment level.

Agriculture – less than 3% of land along the Nile is arable — desperately needs modernization. Even with the world’ best cotton, progress toward agroindustry as elsewhere in “the third world” has been slow. But farming employs one-third the workforce, including subsistence on three million holdings under five acres. Egypt, in Caesar’s time Rome’s granary, by 1980 was importing about three-fourths of its staple, wheat.

Mubarak has unwound nationalized industry slowly – often rewarding his fellow military. It was “collectivized” in the 1950s by army dictator Abdul Gamal Nasser, seduced by Moscow planners. Perhaps even more damaging, Nasser expelled ethnic communities – Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Italians – who for centuries had managed Egypt’s economy. [Still, today, Copts, Egypt’s indigenous Christian minority – perhaps as much as 15% – are disproportionately “wealthier”, an always threatening political timebomb.]

The politics of desperation

Government to government and UN aid has been irrelevant. Faced with staggering problems, the remnants of Egypt’s traditional elite and its new military recruits have ruled despotically. Still, Egypt’s purchasing power ranks around 25th in the world. And the Mubarak regime has managed growth of about 5% annually. Violence has already torpedoed that; for example, frightening off 13 million annual tourists bringing in $12 billion, supporting 10 million workers.

The totalitarian temptation

Egypt has been the fount of modern Islamic fundamentalist violence. Its Moslem Brotherhood, coalescing in the 1920s, advocates returning to medieval church-state organization based on a primitive Islam. Plotters from a Brotherhood offspring assassinated Pres. Anwar Sadat in 1981, an officer of peasant origin who broke off Nasser’s Soviet alliance, allied himself with Washington and made peace with Israel. Mubarak has walked in his footsteps, however hesitantly. No one is certain – because of off and on suppression – of Brotherhood strength. But it is the only significant political organization beyond Mubarak’s government hangerson – and the military. And although splintered – and without charismatic leadership of revolutionary Iran — its “magic formula”, “submission” to the Koran, to solve all social and economic problems, is as attractive as Communism and Fascism were to so many in the 1930s.

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Foreign policy by prayer


In a region noted for miracles – Israel’s prosperous if beleaguered survival, despite attempts to mobilize 360-million Arab enemies, is a recent example – prayer could be a way to make U.S. policy. Although she now contributes only by inheritance, former Sec. of State Condoleezza Rice voiced that possibility, woefully, recently: “…We have only one choice: to trust that in the long arc of history those shared beliefs will matter more than the immediate disruptions that lie ahead and that, ultimately, our interests and ideals will be well served.“

To quote John Maynard Milord Keynes, in the long run we will all be dead.

Reality is the Obama Administration cannot continue to abdicate America’s responsibility, leaving a worldwide vacuum to be filled by every would-be amateur Metternich. Obviously, policy is made with many unanswered questions. But leadership requires sorting possibilities, and decision-making, usually accepting the best of poor alternatives.

In all the uncertainties facing Egypt’s future, and indeed, the whole Arab world, by encroaching poverty pitted against rising expectations, none is so mysterious as current U.S. policy.

The talking heads more or less confirmWashington was unprepared for Cairo’s implosion. Okay, as some of us over 35 know, human events are largely unpredictable. Who could have guessed immolation by an unemployed vendor in tiny Tunisia, hardly respectable among the macho Arabs, would topple the dominoes?

But Egypt was notorious as a classically fragile third world country. There was always potential drama in rising unemployment, underdeveloped or depleted natural resources, literally thousands of years of bureaucratic malfeasance. Ruled by a highly personalized military dictatorship, no secure succession was in sight to its 83-year-old, ill, reactionary head. Yet Cairo dominated culturally a region because of its fossil fuel resources critical to the U.S. and the world economy. Yet destabilization came as a surprise? Yes, the U.S. is in a period of overwhelming domestic concern. Fickle Washington is notoriously a one-issue theater – and the Obama Administration is still winding down two wars. But surprise?

Looking for an explanation, the inevitable conclusion is the foreign policy establishment – in and out of government, for with the Inside the Beltway revolving door they are indistinguishable – is incompetent. Why?

“Group think” dominates analyses. Fads and instant expertise – instead of the long, hard, slog through history and anecdotal information – preclude originality. Even the Pentagon, supposedly noted for realism, bought into the most primitive “scientism”: the hypothesis scientific method could be applied to social problems. It spent tens of millions of dollars on “software” replacing the old crystal ball, the alchemist’s puttering, the Gypsy soothsayers on Manhattan’s Second Avenue, or the oracle of Delphi but didn’t see this coming.

Even now most media chatter trots out tired clichés. Basic problems are ignored or obfuscated. Not even the right questions are posed, at least not publicly:

1] How is any Egyptian regime going to meet growing unemployment and unrest among a notoriously young population? Will the new regime reverse largely protectionist, corrupt Murbarak policies which inhibited foreign investment and technological transfer. [Read the labels: Highly valued Egyptian cotton is made into sheets, towels and garments in India, China, Bangladesh – any place but Egypt!]

2] Fatuous rationalizations about Islam dominate the politically correct discourse. No one, probably including the Muslim Brotherhood itself, knows the fanatics’ strength in the new environment. But can there be any doubt a movement grounded in radical political and primitive Islam, threatens all modern values? Even if analyses arguing the Brothers are currently ambivalent are correct, will the obviously difficult days ahead not stir its original bowels of fanaticism as has happened elsewhere?

3] With continued military dominance likelihood, how far have the jihadists penetrated its lower echelons? Is a sergeants’ revolt likely – just as Gamal Abdul Nasser overthrew the original 1952 military coup instituting failed pan-Arab nationalism and a Soviet alliance? Doesn’t anyone remember Pres. Anwar Sadat was assassinated during a military review by the Brothers’ intellectual offspring in “borrowed” uniforms?

4] Most important, what role can America actually play? Is it wise to continue making public statements, often contradictory within 24 hours? Wouldn’t a quieter diplomacy – if such can be conducted given Washington’s official blabbermouths and wikileaks’ assistance – be more effective? Given past history in Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, etc., isn’t the influence of the Pentagon on Egyptian military – despite the annual $1.5 billion aid bribe – questionable? Is America’s “soft power” being mobilized? coordination between policymakers and propaganda, official and unofficial, in a world of instant replay?

Pres. Barack Obama’s ideological proclivities will have to give way to realism if the U.S. is not to stumble further. Nothing was clearer when his feathers were ruffled by admonitions from old Egypt-hand Amb. Frank Wismer advocating a transition with Mubarak.

Running American foreign policy is not community organizing agitation, but a hard-headed, facts-based choice of always difficult alternatives. Choices have to be made, quickly, quietly, and judiciously. Harry Truman had it right: constitutionally and historically the presidency of the U.S. is a strong executive, and it sometimes doesn’t matter as much what the decision is but that it be made.

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