It’s been a few days, so I’ve checked in again with Barry Rubin, who last time we spoke threw some cold water on early optimism about events in Egypt. Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and author of books including The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What do you make of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s statement yesterday?
Barry Rubin: The regime has agreed on a plan. Parliament will dissolve, a commission will meet to draft a new constitution, then there will be parliamentary elections, and finally presidential elections. Mubarak will save face and finish his term in September.
Presumably, the army and elite agreed on this for a peaceful transition in which they hope that only Mubarak’s head will roll, so to speak. It is interesting to think about how the constitutional commission will be organized — presumably they would want to ensure that regime and elite representatives would be on it.
Lopez: Can he hold on until September?
Rubin: On the one hand, by withholding the army and avoiding a lot of repression, the regime has already signaled to the opposition that it has won and that the Mubarak regime has no chance. On top of this add the Obama administration’s position. So the regime has no cards left.
Why should the opposition compromise on anything, especially since they want Mubarak gone right away? The only factor to the contrary is if ElBaradei and others — but who are the leaders of the opposition? — feel that otherwise people will start going hungry, anarchy will be destructive, and so on.
There is no predetermined answer, but I think that either there will either be a deal or the regime will retreat further or even collapse long before that.
Lopez: Is something going on regionally that can’t be stopped?
Rubin: First, you have to recognize what’s happening; then you have to want to do something about it. If you think that something disastrous is good, then you won’t be motivated. The fact is, however, that no radical regime is menaced as of now. For one thing, they would kill people without moral compunction. Then they would use demagoguery to muster support to an extent more moderate regimes cannot do. Unfortunately, repression works if really applied, and only when it is mitigated does it become vulnerable, as Egypt and Iran prove.
Lopez: Is Mohamed ElBaradei as big an opposition player as the U.S. media presents him?
Rubin: No. He isn’t charismatic, and he has no base and no program, while a lot of his backers are Muslim Brothers. Do the demonstrators really support him or will he be seen as an American-imposed candidate?
Lopez: What do you think will happen in the coming days?
Rubin: The opposition will reject the government’s proposal for transition and there will be more disorders. If the army has decided not to act at all, there could be anarchy and a large-scale breakdown of order.
Lopez: How would you advise the White House if they’d listen to you?
Rubin: They won’t and it is probably too late. But they better start thinking about Plan B, and little things like how they are going to handle a similar scenario in Jordan.
Lopez: Are you getting grief for being a contrarian?
Rubin: An interesting question. Let me answer it in detail. Nowadays there is no real public debate on such issues as there once was. I can write things that, say, 40,000 people will see while the message that everything’s fine and the Muslim Brotherhood is really moderate will reach tens of millions. The mass media take a point of view and anything contradicting it is largely excluded. Indeed, those with the hegemonic standpoint don’t even read alternative positions. In this atmosphere they certainly don’t need to construct strong arguments in order to try to refute them. Thus, their arguments become very flimsy and full of obvious errors that nobody points out. In short, there is no great incentive to criticize someone like me unless it furthers the liberal-conservative partisan struggle, which isn’t really involved in this issue.
My situation is rather ironic because I have been a strong defender of reform-minded elements and wrote a book, The Long War for Freedom, about this battle. In the book, though, I pointed out the very uphill struggle for these courageous people. Despite their apparent — and in Middle East terms rather easy — victory in Egypt, these roadblocks have not disappeared.
But I strongly hope I am wrong about Egypt. Nothing would make me happier than to say — and I wouldn’t hesitate to do so — that I was wrong.
Egypt is also not the same as other Arab countries. #more#Each country is different. I am enthusiastic about the events in Tunisia and I believe that country will make a transition to democracy because the Islamists are weak while the moderate middle class is relatively strong there, and external issues play a far smaller role than in Egypt. I also believe that Lebanon, for instance, has great prospects for democratic movements, indeed the March 14 coalition — but they have been defeated, in part due to a lack of Western support compared to Iran-Syria interference.
Iran also has a very strong democratic movement with widespread support, inoculated from future folly by three decades of Islamist rule. On the other hand, I think a crisis like Egypt’s in Jordan would be even worse, since many of the “moderates” are really radicals and the Muslim Brotherhood is strong there.
Then there was my experience as a close observer of the Iranian revolution, to which this situation has more parallels than people realize because they don’t remember what happened in Iran. They think that the Islamists were always in control and the fact that Egypt’s movement is spontaneous and not led by one group proves it is different. But that is precisely what happened in Iran for many months in 1978.
I also watched the Palestinian situation where the regime went to free elections. In the election some people wanted Islamism, others protested against the regime by voting for Hamas, and we see the result.
In the West, I see two main groups among those so vocally and uncritically supportive of what’s going on in Egypt. There are those who really know nothing about Middle East politics and societies who have suddenly proclaimed themselves experts and say the silliest things. And there are a lot of professionals who in many — not all — cases have been supportive of anti-American forces and Islamists. One wonders whether they are saying what they are because they don’t think radicals will take power in Egypt or rather because they do and want that to happen.
I have followed the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for 30 years or more. When I read the leader saying that he declares Jihad against America, then see people proclaim the Brotherhood as moderate, totally unaware of what it has said and done, it convinces me that I must speak out against the danger. I would be much less vocal if I saw people saying, “Yes, there is a real danger of a radical regime or an Islamist takeover but we are trying to prevent that from happening.” The naïveté is dangerous.
And I also have seen that many of the people proclaiming there is nothing to worry about now have been wrong over and over again in the past. They were wrong about the Iranian revolution, the PLO, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Turkish regime, Hamas, Algeria, al-Qaeda, and much more. A few days before the September 11 attack, an article came out in a magazine criticizing me for warning of the threat from revolutionary Islamist terrorist groups, saying that this was a fantasy.
And finally, another ignored or misunderstood factor is the regional situation. On one hand, I constantly hear from Arabs, Turks, and Iranians, as well as Israelis and people from other countries, that they have lost faith in the United States as a reliable ally Have no doubt, this will further undermine that feeling. Those who can are moving toward making deals with Iran or at least avoiding conflict with those they think are destined to be victorious.
On the other hand, anti-American forces — Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhoods, al-Qaeda, and others — are very happy, arguing that the United States is losing and they are winning.
Now, if events demoralize your friends and make your foes more aggressive, isn’t that a problem? And shouldn’t that be warned about?