The Corner

A Conversation with Bernard Lewis

Professor Lewis, as you know, is the dean of Middle East historians. Many of us regard an acquaintance with his books, articles, and ideas as indispensable to an understanding of the Middle East. National Review is very fortunate to count him as a friend. He has been a star of our cruises — including last November.

I have just spoken to Professor Lewis by phone. He is in the Middle East, whose biggest concern at the moment is Egypt. I am in New York, whose biggest concern is possible snow.

Lewis says, first of all, that “it’s too early to say anything definitive” — anything definitive about Egypt. He is too smart, too experienced to make many pronouncements while events are in flux. He says, “Things look a little better than they did” a couple of days ago. “But they could go badly wrong.”

“The immediate alternatives are not attractive.” What are those? “Continuation, in some modified form, of the present regime, or a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood. Obviously, the former is better.”

Are we witnessing a democratic revolt? “I don’t know what ‘democratic’ would mean in this context. It is certainly a popular revolt.” Egyptians are suffering from both unfreedom and material want. (They usually go hand in hand.) “The economic situation in Egypt is very, very bad. A large percentage live below the poverty line.”

Here is something to bear in mind: “The fact that this regime,” the Mubarak regime, “has good relations with the United States and Israel only seems to discredit the idea of good relations with the United States and Israel.”

And here is a question of the hour: Is Egypt 2011 like Iran 1979? Lewis: “Yes, there are certain similarities. I hope we don’t repeat the same mistakes.” The Carter administration handled events in Iran “poorly.”

The Obama administration should ponder something, as should we all: “At the moment, the general perception, in much of the Middle East, is that the United States is an unreliable friend and a harmless enemy. I think we want to give the exact opposite impression”: one of being a reliable friend and a dangerous enemy. “That is the way to be perceived.”

These revolts are catching, and long have been. Tunisia precipitated Egypt. “One country throws out its tyrant, and the rest are immediately encouraged to do the same.” I ask whether the Jordanians will revolt. Lewis answers, “Depends on what happens in Egypt.”

He notes that “many of our so-called friends in the region are inefficient kleptocracies. But they’re better than the Islamic radicals.” Democrats, however, are best of all: “and they do exist.” 

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