The Corner

Cold Water on the Frenzy: Cautions about Egypt


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, took some questions Sunday from National Review Online on the situation in Egypt.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why all this optimism in the media vis-à-vis Egypt? Why do you believe it’s so wrong?

Barry Rubin: Everybody likes the idea of the oppressed and repressed masses rising up against a dictatorship. Both conservatives and liberals find this appealing. And because America is a democratic country and the current wisdom is that everyone all over the world is alike, the assumption is that Egyptians want to have civil rights and freedom. This is reinforced by the Bush-era support for democratic change in the Middle East based on the idea that the dictatorships have indoctrinated the people to be anti-American. That view is true as far as it goes, but one reason why the dictatorships have pushed the political line they do is precisely because they know it will be popular.

But what if this bipartisan preconception is wrong? What if the most likely alternatives are either an Arab-nationalist dictatorship or an Islamist dictatorship? First, the moderate democratic forces are weak, disorganized, and few in number compared with their two rivals. Second, in Egypt especially, many of the “moderate democrats” are quite extremist, even if they are leftist or radical-nationalist rather than Islamist in doctrine.

We also have some precedents: Iran’s revolution (Islamism); Palestinian elections (Hamas); Lebanese democracy (Hezbollah); Algerian free elections (bloody civil war); Turkish democracy (Islamist regime at present). This pattern cannot be ignored, there are reasons for it.


Lopez: You’ve compared U.S. policy in response to what’s going on in Egypt with its policy on recent uprisings in Iran. Why is this an important point?

Rubin: In Iran, the Obama administration generally remained silent and the stolen election, mass opposition movement, and repression had no effect on U.S. policy. Now, as Arab newspapers have noted, the administration is taking a tough line against the Egyptian regime. Why be so lenient when an Islamist enemy of the United States is challenged by democratic dissidents and so tough when a U.S. ally faces a revolt?


Lopez: What would you advise reporters as they watch what is going on?

Rubin: There are three key decisions.

First, will the army and elite push out Mubarak in order to make the regime’s survival more likely?

Second, will the army stick together and step in to restore order? Is it waiting to force Mubarak’s resignation? To wait until people are sick of disruptions and yearn for an end to anarchy? Or because the army is divided and isn’t sure that the troops will obey orders, including firing on civilians? If it is the third, the regime is doomed.

Third, will the Muslim Brotherhood decide that a revolutionary situation is at hand and stake everything on pushing for the regime’s end? The leaders know that if they are wrong they will end up dead or in concentration camps.


Lopez: If a Muslim Brotherhood government rises, what might the repercussions be regionally?

Rubin: If I believed that Egypt would become a moderate, stable, democratic state I would be quite happy. Yet there are many reasons that the possible result — and that’s a strong possibility — is that a new regime would be anti-American, either Islamist or Islamist-radical nationalist, threaten regional stability, stop opposing the Iran-Syria bloc, and go back to war with Israel. Those are pretty high stakes!


Lopez: Why is the Muslim street so anti-American?

Rubin: That is a long answer. Of course, some will say it is purely because of Israel but that’s nonsense. The shortest answer is this: On one hand, they have been indoctrinated by schools (where it is still taught that the United States attacked Egypt in 1967 and destroyed its air force), mosques, and media into anti-Americanism for decades. But it is not all passive, of course. As Arab nationalists, their worldview says America is the enemy, and as Islamists the same point applies. They blame the United States for the existing order — including the current regime — yet they were also anti-American when, before the mid-1970s, the government was also anti-American. The United States is an all-purpose scapegoat.   


Lopez: What is the fate of Coptic Christians if there is a dramatic political change in Egypt?

Rubin: Again, it would be nice to imagine that everyone will be brothers in the new Egypt. But one can remember how the Young Turk revolution in the Ottoman Empire began with everyone embracing each other in the streets and ended in the massacre of Armenians. They have a hard time now and will be far worse off in an Islamist state. Even if Egypt became democratic they would keep a low profile, fearing attack from an Islamist opposition.


Lopez: What should we most be paying attention to as we watch events unfold? What should we be encouraging?

Rubin: I explained the three key things to watch above. For me, what would be encouraging is if the army and leadership got rid of Mubarak and his son, took firm hold of the situation, and made some changes to win popular support. But in that context the regime would survive even if the current ruler did not.

Saying these things doesn’t make me happy. I know many Arab reformers, I respect them, and I’d like to see them triumphant. This might happen in Tunisia, but the situation is very different in Egypt. Wishful thinking is neither a good analysis nor a good policy.


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