No more illusions about Egypt after Mubarak (THE GLOBE AND MAIL COMMENTARY) YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 06/26/12)
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The electoral victory of Egypt’s radical Muslim Brotherhood, as
former dictator Hosni Mubarak lies on his deathbed, marks the end of
one era of Western wishful thinking about the Middle East while
bringing a new era of self-delusion in its place.
Although Mr. Mubarak plundered his people, held sham elections and
ignored growing Egyptian poverty and unemployment, the West spent
decades treating him as a force for stability, even progress. U.S.
President Barack Obama chose Mr. Mubarak’s Cairo to deliver his
address to the Muslim world in 2009. There was not a word of
criticism in that speech about the suppression of dissent in Egypt.
Mr. Obama and other Western leaders ignored appeals for help by
imprisoned Egyptian dissidents.
Mr. Mubarak faced little international criticism for turning the
Egypt-Israel peace agreement into a farce. Under his regime, there
was virtually no Egyptian tourism to Israel or joint business
ventures between Egyptians and Israelis. Egyptians who did visit
Israel were subjected to harassment after returning home. The state-
owned media was among the Arab world’s most viciously anti-Jewish,
promoting Holocaust denial and portraying Israel as the new Nazi
Still, however bitter Israelis felt toward Mr. Mubarak for betraying
the spirit of peace, they sensed he was right when he warned that the
most likely alternative to his rule wasn’t democracy but radical
Islam. And so Israelis watched last year’s revolt with growing
foreboding. While sympathetic to the young demonstrators in Tahrir
Square, Israelis feared that those who would ultimately benefit from
Mr. Mubarak’s fall wouldn’t be the brave democrats who led the
revolution but the Islamists waiting patiently on the sidelines.
Israelis warned that the Egyptian spring would likely resemble not
the triumph of democracy in Prague, 1989, but the triumph of Islamism
in Tehran, 1979.
Some Western commentators mocked those anxieties. Israelis were
behaving like yesterday’s men, they said. Mr. Obama’s administration
was reportedly furious with Israel for urging Washington not to
abandon Mr. Mubarak entirely, but to ensure a transition of power
that would give the democratic opposition time to organize.
As for the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, some Western experts
noted that it represents only a minority. Besides, the Brotherhood
wasn’t interested in ruling Egypt, only in taking its rightful place
in the public sphere. After all, that is what the Brotherhood’s
Now that those assumptions have collapsed, some in the West seek
signs of Muslim Brotherhood moderation. Governing will temper its
ideology, according to the latest assurances. Besides, there are
relative moderates in the Brotherhood.
Similar hopes were expressed when the Palestinian Islamist movement,
Hamas, seized power in Gaza in 2007. But since then, Hamas’s rule has
become increasingly authoritarian. Internet cafés have been shut down
or set on fire, opponents imprisoned and tortured.
Just recently, the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed
Badie, called the creation of Israel “the worst catastrophe ever to
befall the peoples of the world” and urged Arab armies to confront
Israel. Yet these and other incendiary statements tend to go
underreported in the West.
According to the Iranian news agency, one of president-elect Mohammed
Morsi’s first policy statements after winning the election was
expressing his intention for closer Egyptian-Iranian ties. Mr.
Morsi’s spokesman later denied it. All this still raises the
terrifying possibility of a Sunni-Shiite Islamist alliance. The first
Sunni Islamist movement to reach out to Iran was Hamas; now, rather
than remain an aberration, Hamas could be a harbinger.
Western naiveté about the Middle East is hardly confined to Egypt.
Last year, I was part of a group of Israelis who met in Jerusalem
with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Mr. Kerry had just come from
Damascus with excellent news: Bashar al-Assad was ready for peace
with Israel. When one of the participants mentioned that
demonstrations had begun to challenge Mr. Assad’s legitimacy, Mr.
Kerry’s response was: All the more reason to negotiate while he’s
still in power. In other words: Israel had the golden opportunity to
give up the strategic Golan Heights to a dictator who might be
deposed by a popular revolution, which might or might not recognize
whatever peace agreement he signed.
That kind of wishful thinking has resulted in Western policy toward
the Middle East that is strategically incoherent.
Consider the West’s response to two recent crises in the Arab world.
In the first case, the West actively intervened to help depose
Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. As loathsome as Mr. Gadhafi was, he posed no
strategic threat, having abandoned support for terrorism and a
The second case is Syria’s Mr. Assad, who has committed far greater
atrocities against his own people than Mr. Gadhafi did against his.
Mr. Assad’s fall would have historic strategic implications,
weakening allies Iran and Hezbollah. Yet the West has remained
At this fateful moment of transition for the Middle East, the West
needs clarity in assessing threat and opportunity. Whether dealing
with the Muslim Brotherhood or negotiating with Iran over its nuclear
program, the operative principle must be: No more illusions.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in
Jerusalem and a contributing editor to the New Republic. (© Copyright
2012 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. 06/26/12)
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