Stay Out of Syria
A response to Clifford D. May.

At a checkpoint outside Idlib, Syria, June 10, 2012


Andrew C. McCarthy

You read that and you’re thinking: “Hmm, a substantial part of Egypt’s population is against the Islamists; and the Brotherhood got only a quarter of the vote — hardly a ringing vote of confidence for the leaders of the Islamists. Maybe the prospects for democracy in Egypt and the Middle East aren’t so bad after all.” Well . . . not exactly.

Cliff’s last sentence actually refers to my observation that a non-Islamist candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, got “23 percent” of the vote in the first round of presidential balloting. In Cliff’s telling, my “23 percent” has become “substantial.” But how “substantial” is the non-Islamist vote, really? Well, it turns out to be markedly less than the “only around a quarter” — actually, 26 percent — that Cliff grudgingly concedes the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, got. (About 23 million people voted in the election, so a three-point difference translates to about 700,000 people — not insignificant.)

But there’s more that Cliff glides by without noting. Morsi got “only” 26 percent of the vote because the Islamist vote — a vast majority of the electorate — was split among several candidates. And, pace Amir Taheri, Morsi’s haul, though just a portion of the votes cast in favor of Islamists, was actually quite impressive: The military junta currently ruling the country disqualified two Islamist candidates who were widely popular; the less charismatic Morsi was the Brotherhood’s Plan B — but he won anyway.

That an Islamist would win, despite the purportedly “substantial” fear of Islamists, was to be expected, in light of the parliamentary elections. Cliff doesn’t mention those either, but Islamist factions won three-quarters of the vote. In fact, the non-Islamists were out-voted not only by the Brotherhood but by so-called “Salafist” Islamists who are even more extreme. Oh, and about that 23 percent of Egyptians who voted against the Islamists? They didn’t vote for democracy; they voted for Ahmed Shafiq, a relic of the Mubarak regime favored by the military junta. That is, they voted for the dictatorship that is claimed to have given rise to the Arab Spring in the first place — because even that is better than what Sunni supremacism has in store for them.

Cliff misdiagnoses Syria the same way. He argues: “Within the loose coalition fighting Assad, there are freedom fighters — I’m personally acquainted with some. But yes, Islamists are in the mix as well. Should Assad fall, who will end up on top? We can’t be certain.” This, again, conflates our hopes with our reality.

I am personally acquainted with Zuhdi Jasser — he is an authentic Muslim moderate and American patriot. But I do not permit my admiration for him to mislead me into thinking he represents anything more than a thin ray of hope along a cold, dark firmament. I do not try to convince myself that because his eccentric brand of Islam resonates with me, it must have a realistic prospect of gaining traction in the Middle East, where the Islamic supremacists of al-Azhar University, the Brotherhood, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation call the doctrinal tune. I support Jasser, but I wouldn’t bet my country’s security on the prevalence of his interpretation of Islam — I hope for the best, but I plan for the Brotherhood.