The events unfolding in Egypt that began on January 25 were indeed historic, but they may well be obscuring a much bigger story going on in the region, that the media are generally ignoring. The crowds that assembled in Egypt were large indeed, but not unprecedented, as was widely reported. While many in the media stated that the recent uprising in Tunisia, resulting in the removal of a dictator, was what sparked a democratic revolution in the heart of Egypt, the story of revolutions and attempts to democratize began much earlier. Perhaps the spark may have been with the start of the war in Iraq, in March of 2003. Or maybe with the first free elections in Iraq, with the purple ink-stained fingers, in March of 2005.
Or maybe it was the Cedar Revolution. However, on January 25, 2011, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon came to an end, the same day that the uprising began in Egypt. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down as prime minister from a coalition government with the Iranian backed Hezbollah, which he had headed. His father, Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, was assassinated on February 14, 2005, along with 22 others, in a massive truck bomb explosion. Protests began a week later, with some 20,000 people in the streets outside the hotel where Hariri had died.
Two weeks later, the Syrian-backed regime collapsed, as a result of the demonstrations. On March 14, 2005, an estimated one million people gathered in Beirut, far more than at any of the Egyptian demonstrations, and the Syrians announced that they would remove their remaining 14,000 troops from the country. The last soldiers left on April 26, and Syria was out. The idea of a true democracy in the Arab world all of a sudden seemed real.
Saad Hariri was later forced into a coalition government with Hezbollah, the Iranian backed militia and terrorist organization, but that came to an end on January 25, replaced by a coalition dominated by Hezbollah. The Cedar Revolution is a cautionary tale about democracy in the Middle East. Hezbollah, an avowed enemy of Israel, has taken power in Lebanon.
While there has been much attention focused on negotiations and sanctions to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, this has really been more of a diversion from what the Iranians are up to. Iran created and backs Hezbollah in Lebanon to the tune of close to a billion dollars a year, and Hamas in Gaza.
According to Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab Muslim, who writes for The Jerusalem Post and has worked as a producer and consultant for NBC News since 1989, “The well-meaning pro-democracy protesters in Cairo, Tunis, Amman and other Arab capitals have set in motion a process of political change, but the Islamist extremists hiding in the shadows are just biding their time, waiting for the moment when they can turn these developments to their own, more sinister, advantage.”
He writes that “There are growing signs that radical Islamic groups are trying to hijack the pro-democracy uprising that is currently sweeping the Arab world. In Tunisia and Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is already trying to exploit the popular uprisings to score political gains.”
Abu Toameh says that “If the pro-democracy, anti-government movements in these countries fail to distance themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt and Tunisia could easily fall into the hands of Iran’s proxies.”
He says that “Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani has said that uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are the result of ‘the Islamic awakening’ in Middle East countries.”
Already in Tunisia, the exiled leader of Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood equivalent, Rashid Ghannouchi, has returned to Tunisia and received a hero’s welcome. And in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has thrown its political backing to opposition leader and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohammed ElBaradei. ElBaradei, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with the IAEA in 2005, is regularly described in the media as a moderate. But others are concerned by his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and a history of downplaying the Iranian threat, as when he stated that “the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran is overestimated.”
Many of the anchors and correspondents from the major networks dutifully made the trek to Cairo to bear witness to the demonstrations: Katie Couric, Brian Williams, Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour. But while reporting with the crowds in the background, were they really able to glean what was going on? The message was loud and clear. This was a broad-based demonstration, with students and university graduates using Twitter and Facebook, the unemployed, and people just fed up with a corrupt, authoritarian regime, standing for freedom and democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood came late to the protests, we were told, but don’t worry, there is nothing to fear from them. After all, they make up no more than 30% of the population. However, with no other groups well organized, besides the military, 30% makes the Brotherhood the political power center inside Egypt.
Richard Engel of NBC News said of the Muslim Brotherhood that “A lot of them are truly patriotic Egyptians,” and that “They were nice people. I mean, if you fell down in the street, they would come and help you out. If you didn’t have enough money for the bus, they would give you money.” But he offered this warning, whether intentional or not: “They control a lot of the organizations that people would think are popular, a lot of the labor unions, the lawyers union, the different professional syndicates in this country. So what could seem like a professional revolution by the middle class could also have a lot of involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood.”
People should remember the lesson of Lebanon, as they watch events unfold in Egypt. The focus of the world has been on two issues in this region. One is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the other is Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
But in the meantime, through Hezbollah and Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran has been expanding its reach throughout the area. They have supplied explosive devices in Iraq for the purpose of killing American troops there, and have sought a significant role in shaping Iraq’s government.
The other kindling elements to this uprising have been WikiLeaks, Al-Jazeera and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Through WikiLeaks, for example, we’ve learned that Iran received 19 missiles from North Korea. And we have learned of American awareness of the often brutal nature of the Mubarak regime.
So when will Iran have deliverable nuclear weapons? Whenever it decides it is in its best interest to have them. In the meantime, Iran has effective control over Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and has within its sites, Yemen and the biggest prize of all, Egypt. Not because of oil. Egypt ranks 21st among oil producing nations. But because of the Suez Canal, the largest population in the Arab world at about 80 million, a beachhead on the Mediterranean in Northern Africa, and an affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood, who many in the West are telling us not to worry about.
I’ve watched hours of Al-Jazeera through these past couple of weeks, and they don’t seem concerned about the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood. As AIM’s Cliff Kincaid pointed out in a recent column, “Al-Jazeera consistently and misleadingly describes the Muslim Brotherhood as a ‘non-violent’ organization. In return, the Muslim Brotherhood describes Al-Jazeera as ‘the greatest Arab media organization.’”
Of the despots, monarchs, theocrats and tyrants that operate in the Middle East, from an American national security perspective, Egypt has been a relatively reliable ally, in terms of maintaining peace with Israel, and by not supporting groups such as Hamas in Gaza. Frankly it would have been preferable for other governments, most notably Iran, to fall to democratic revolutions before Egypt. That is because the outcome is by no means clear, and the potential for something much worse is very real.
Claudia Rosett, longtime journalist and expert on Middle Eastern issues, has pointed to a double standard in how the Obama administration has reacted to the situation versus how he reacted to the popular uprising in Iran in 2009, when he said the parties should continue the “debate” to resolve their issues. She asks why the Obama administration “was content during the Iranian uprising to ‘bear witness,’ but is now reported to be working flat-out to ensure Egyptian officials kick start a transition. Actually, one could ask a lot of questions. Does China’s President Hu Jintao represent a regime any less brutal than that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt? Yet, just last month, President Obama hosted a state dinner for Hu at the White House. So, is the chief distinction, then, that despots who receive U.S. aid are ripe for removal, but despots who are U.S. creditors are feted by the president?”
Maybe in the next presidential election, we will be debating “who lost Egypt.” But preferably, we’ll be debating instead whether a thriving and peaceful democracy in Egypt should be credited to George Bush’s democracy agenda or to Barack Obama, for wisely guiding the transition.
Democracy is more than just holding one election. It is the establishment of a free press, an independent judiciary, freedom of association, and multiple elections, followed by a peaceful transfer of power. In other words, it doesn’t happen overnight.
Les Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing for The Daily Beast, said that “the Obama White House hasn’t helped matters by shifting policy ground almost daily, causing confusion, and thereby squandering America’s credibility and limited but precious influence. President Obama has got to learn the fundamental rule of dealing with careening crises: State your basic principles and then shut up publicly! (Meaning, just boringly repeat your mantra daily.)”
He described the inconsistencies in the White House’s message: “They started out saying that Mubarak’s regime was ‘stable,’ they proclaimed Egypt a ‘close and important ally,’ suggesting the need to support Mubarak, and added that he was not a ‘dictator.’ Then they threatened to review the billion-dollar U.S. aid package to Egypt, a real body blow to Mubarak and the military. After Mubarak said he would not run for reelection in September, they called for an ‘orderly transition.’ As protests continued, they called for Mubarak to begin the transition ‘now.’ In sum, they danced to and fro during the first several days and then increasingly hardened their position against Mubarak even as they were privately trying to get him to participate in his own political demise.”
He might have added that in the second week, the White House sent an envoy, Frank Wisner, a former ambassador, who stated publicly, before the cameras, that he felt that Mubarak should stay in power, and have a chance to write his own legacy. Those words were quickly disavowed by the White House, and were said to be Wisner’s personal views. Amateur hour continued.
The Economist magazine attempted to put the matter in context: “[President George W.] Bush was indeed a far more active champion of democracy than Mr. Obama has been. In 2005 his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, gave a startling speech in Cairo in which she said that having spent 60 years pursuing stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East, and achieving neither, America was henceforth supporting the democratic aspirations of all people. True to its word, the Bush administration nagged, scolded, bribed and bullied its allies towards greater democracy. The Americans leant on Egypt to hold more open elections in 2005, and in 2006 they talked an astonished Israel into letting Hamas contest Palestinian elections in the occupied territories. Even the Saudis were prevailed on to hold some (men only) local elections. All this was based on a particular theory, the post-9/11 neoconservative conclusion that the root cause of terrorism was the absence of Arab democracy. ‘The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,’ said Mr. Bush.”
Their point was that Bush’s critics were “suddenly looking less clever—and Mr. Bush’s simple and rather wonderful notion that Arabs want, deserve and are capable of democracy is looking rather wise. In pursuit of this simple idea he was willing, up to a point, to discombobulate long-standing American allies whose autocratic behaviour at home America had long forgiven or overlooked in the interests of realpolitik.”
Comparing Bush to President Obama, the Economist article said that “Barack Obama entered office eager to ‘engage’ America’s enemies and repair relations with Islam. So keen was he on engagement that he gave only tepid support to 2009’s ‘green revolution’ in Iran, which the regime went on to crush. As for mending relations with Islam, Mr. Obama decided that this required some diffidence. So his own big speech in Cairo stressed that America ‘does not presume to know what is best for everyone.’
“That lack of presumption, the neocons now say, was a grave mistake. It gave the dictators a free pass and put America on the wrong side of the barricades in Tahrir Square. Elliott Abrams, who was a senior adviser to Mr. Bush, argues that Mr. Obama’s misguided fixation on peacemaking in Palestine made him forget about the millions suffering under the boot of the Arab dictators.”
Then comes the question of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist group, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, who became a great admirer of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. Following an attempted assassination of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954, the group was outlawed in Egypt.
Many in the media have been assuring us that they are no longer a problem. “Very moderate,” said Peter Bergen on MSNBC’s Hardball. News of the Muslim Brotherhood being included in a new government was “not bad news.” An article on CNN’s website said that they’ve “long ago renounced violence as a means to achieve its domestic agenda of Islamic change.”
Rashad al-Bayoumi, deputy leader of the Brotherhood, said in an interview on Japan’s NHTV: “After President Mubarak steps down and a provisional government is formed, there is a need to dissolve the peace treaty with Israel.”
For now the question is, can and should the Muslim Brotherhood be welcomed, or allowed in as part of the new regime that will replace Hosni Mubarak sometime later this year?
Investor’s Business Daily editorialized on this debate: “To many Mideast experts, fear of the Muslim Brotherhood is ‘overblown,’ as a recent headline put it. Maybe so. But the Brotherhood did win 20% of the seats—88 total—in Egypt’s parliament in elections held in 2005. The bet among many Egypt watchers is if a vote were held today, the Brotherhood would get at least 50% more than that and might garner an outright majority:
“Don’t worry, we’re told—Mohammed Badie, the recently elected head of the Brotherhood, is really a ‘moderate.’ For the record, here’s what Badie had to say in one sermon last year:
‘Arab and Muslim regimes are betraying their people by failing to confront the Muslim’s real enemies—not only Israel, but also the United States. Waging jihad against both of these infidels is a commandment of Allah that cannot be disregarded. Governments have no right to stop their people from fighting the U.S.’
“Despite this, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation, telling NPR that ‘they at least are now involved in the dialogue that we have encouraged.’
‘Dialogue’ with terrorist supporters? Sorry, but we shouldn’t place the imprimatur of our government on any movement that tolerates or advocates terrorism, oppression and the extirpation of an entire people—the Jews. Yet President Obama seems ready to clasp the Brotherhood’s hand in admiring friendship—a weird bromance if ever there was one.”
Finally, the editorial writers at IBD ask, “Is this just Carteresque naivete, leading to a great tragedy like the deposing of the shah of Iran? Or is it something worse—a dangerous world view that says even terrorists who seek to kill us deserve America’s respect and solicitude?”
The question of whether this democratic uprising will successfully overturn historical precedent and withstand the hijacking by radicals that normally occurs in this part of the world is yet to be answered.