Lee Smith dates the onset of the current turmoil to this past December 17, when a 26-year-old fruit vendor in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid set himself aflame. Since then we have had six weeks that are shaking the world, perhaps most notably today in Egypt.
Anyone looking for guidance in today’s commentary on what we can realistically hope for out of the turmoil in Egypt will, I think, be disappointed. Isn’t the Muslim Brotherhood the strongest and most organized dissident force in Egypt? Isn’t the Muslim Brotherhood the most likely beneficiary of the overthrow of the regime of Egypt’s current pharaoh? The learned Professor Fouad Ajami relegates mention of the Muslim Brotherhood to the penultimate paragraph of his long Wall Street Journal column on this week’s events in Egypt:
There remains, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood. It was in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood was born in the late 1920s. The Brotherhood has been the alibi and the bogeyman with which Hosni Mubarak frightened the middle class at home and the donors abroad in Washington and Europe, who prop his regime out of fear that Egypt would come apart and the zealots would triumph.
What is to be done? Professor Ajami offers this: “Revolts of this kind are always a gamble on the unknown.” You pays your money and you take your chances.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Mohamad Bazzi likewise relegates the Muslim Brotherhood and its ilk to the penultimate paragraph of his New York Daily News column: “Without any space for popular-based political movements to emerge, Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have the greatest influence through their social service networks. And the autocratic rulers have a convenient bogeyman to avoid elections.” Convenient, I suppose, but are we sure that’s a bogeyman? If not, then what? Bazzi leaves off just when things get interesting.
Our friend Michael Ledeen places the Muslim Brotherhood and its ilk close to the top of his reflections:
In Egypt, which is by far the most important of the Arab countries affected by the tumult, there are genuine democrats and also members of organizations (from the Muslim Brotherhood to Islamic Jihad, Hamas, et al.) who would transform Egypt from an authoritarian to a totalitarian regime.
Remember my Grandma Mashe: “Things are never so bad they can’t get worse.”
So how are we to look at it all?
Here is how we are to look at it. Grandma was on to something. It is difficult to see things clearly in Egypt. Indeed, Michael turns his gaze from Egypt to Iran: “the winning gambit — finally support democratic revolution in Iran — isn’t even being discussed.” (Israeli Col. (ret.) General Michael Segall has similar thoughts related to Lebaanon.) Like Caroline Glick, Michael is clear that Mohamed el-Baradei is a snake in the grass.
With the exception of Iraq, the various governments of the Arab Middle East range essentially from monarchies to dictatorships, ranging mostly from distasteful to disgusting. Jordan and Morocco present decent monarchies. We are hopeful that the people of Iraq can maintain the democracy that American force of arms has delivered.
Within the past six weeks the government of Lebanon has come under the thumb of Hezbollah. (Jonathan Spyer refers to the birth of Hezbollahstan.) The government of the Palestinian Authority is split between an Islamist dictatorship and an illegitimate holdover.
Michael Ledeen dismisses the questions one might raise about this state of affairs with an observation about the ambivalence, which he ascribes in part to:
the racist stereotype that goes under the label “the Arab street,” according to which the Arab masses are motivated above all by an unrelenting rage at Israel for its oppression of the beloved Palestinians. That myth went along with another: the belief that the culture of the Arab world (sometimes expanded to the culture of the Muslim world’) was totally resistant to democracy. The tumult has nothing to do with Palestine/Israel and even a blind bat can see hundreds of thousands of Arabs fighting for democracy, as have their fellow Muslims in Iran.
Michael begs the question when he frames the proposition of skeptical observers that “the culture of the Arab world is totally resistant to democracy.” The phenomenon of Oriental despotism is an old subject among the wisest writers on politics, including Montesquieu. In his study Orientalism and Islam, Professor Michael Curtis reviews the work of the great Western writers on Oriental despotism and asks: Are contemporary Muslim societies compatible with democratic political systems or with governments based on principles of human rights? I doubt that it is “racist” to wonder if the question is relevant to events in Egypt or to find the answer not entirely free from doubt.
UPDATE: A friend emails a related thought:
Just for a moment consider the past year/18 months in the Middle East: Iran, Turkey, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt…the Saudi king has spent the past few months in an NYC hospital. Purely from a “realist” realpolitik angle — who is the United States supposed to form an alliance with in the region?
Who is actually “stable” and “strong”?
We of course know the answer. Israel is. It’s just that the “realists” and “progressives” don’t want to admit it.
They’re going to keep babbling about a “grand bargain” with dictators and a “modus vivendi” with terrorists. It should be clear, though, who the real source of strength and stability (and democracy and freedom) actually is in the Middle East.
As for the modus vivendi with terrorists, the Obama administration’s dispatch of Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria is a good example.
THIS JUST IN: Barry Rubin captures my thoughts from a different angle:
There is no good policy for the United States regarding the uprising in Egypt but the Obama Administration may be adopting something close to the worst option. This is its first real international crisis. And it seems to be adopting a policy that, while somewhat balanced, is pushing the Egyptian regime out of power. The situation could not be more dangerous and might be the biggest disaster for the region and Western interests since the Iranian revolution three decades ago.
Experts and news media seem to be overwhelmingly optimistic, just as they generally were in Iran’s case. Wishful thinking is to some extent replacing serious analysis. Indeed, the alternative outcome is barely presented: This could lead to an Islamist Egypt, if not now in several years….
NOTE: Last year Professor Paul Rahe — whose professional expertise bears on the issues I touch on above — had some timely reflections he posted on Power Line in “Jerusalem revisited.” Professor Rahe revisits the subject today in “Background to the Egyptian revolution.”