Constitutional deliberations in Egypt (including a flight from the presidential palace in Cairo). Crackdowns in Syria. Rumors of worse to come. Barry Rubin, 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 is here to weigh in.
KJL: Do you have anything remotely hopeful to say about the trajectory of the Arab Spring today?
BARRY RUBIN: Aha! Fishing for optimism. Okay. First, the anti-Islamist opposition in Egypt and Tunisia has coalesced. There’s hope for autonomy for a moderate Kurdish area in Syria. And more people in the West have woken up to the situation and the danger. That’s about it for optimism.
Seriously, in Tunisia there is a battle for power, and the Islamists face the possibility of constraints, even if only due to their own caution. There is little good to say in Egypt. For Syria, 2013 is probably going to be the year of a rebel victory, even though they might not control the entire country until 2014. So what kind of government is going to rule Syria? It’s an open question, but the Muslim Brotherhood is the best bet.
And the Obama administration, after reelection, has not changed any of its basic positions on these issues.
KJL: Should the U.S. have some bottom lines to try to influence the upcoming constitutional referendum in Egypt?
RUBIN: Shrug. The Constitution will pass. The U.S. government won’t say a word of criticism or do anything. Thus, the United States has no influence on the referendum. What will happen as the Brotherhood continues to intimidate the courts and the Egyptian president rules by decree? Will the White House seriously condition aid on the treatment of women and Christians?
KJL: Is there anything we or anyone else can do to help influence things in Egypt?
RUBIN: There’s a lot but nothing will be done. It’s a matter of the Obama Administration’s ideology and policies.
KJL: Is Syria going to use chemical weapons? The U.S. says we’ll take action if they do. What could that look like?
RUBIN: I think that the rebels will capture Aleppo within three to four months, and Damascus some time in 2013. Then the regime will retreat to the northwest, the world will recognize a rebel regime as ruling the country, and there will be a bloodbath. Expect the Obama administration to take little or no action.
KJL: What happens when Assad goes, however he does?
RUBIN: It’s very complex because there are so many players: Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, and Druze; Kurds; Brotherhood representatives; Salafists of many different groups; professional soldiers; warlords; and liberals. A lot of the powerbrokers are local.
Experience generally shows us that the winner is the side that is the best-armed, most organized, knows what it thinks and wants, and perhaps the one that has the most international backing. That’s the Brotherhood.
KJL: It was a brutal November between Israel and Palestinians — how long is the cease-fire likely to hold?
RUBIN: Hamas will escalate and Israel will wait as long as possible to respond. It is impossible to say, any time from six months to two years.
KJL: Are the Palestinians emboldened by its change in U.N. status? What long-term effect does that vote have?
RUBIN: It’s the end of any hope for a peace process. Why should the Palestinians negotiate when they believe they can get whatever they want from the international community? Why should Israel make agreements or concessions when it knows it will get nothing and the world will abrogate the other side’s obligations?
One of the most amazing things is that this decision is so destructive, and that there’s no awareness of that fact among Western governments and the mass media. One reason why so many countries voted for this proposal, I think, is they said that it would make the Palestinians happy and do no harm. We are faced with a conflict without diplomatic resolution for this entire generation — say, 30 to 50 years.
KJL: What worries you most in the Mideast? In the world?
RUBIN: In the Middle East: the effect of a radical regime in the most important Arabic-speaking country, Egypt. In the world: the fact that the West is not only generally blind to the threats, but its governments are actually furthering the danger.
KJL: If you could offer President Obama any advice for his second term, what might it be?
RUBIN: Revolutionary Islamist groups are not America’s friends. Form and lead a broad alliance of forces against them. It is not too late. Otherwise, you are creating a situation for the Middle East of war, dictatorship, and the utmost damage to U.S. interests.