How Does Egypt Regain Its Once-Coveted Status? An Interview with Walid Phares - Part I
It’s become clear there is confusion among Americans of what Egyptians really want. Many believe their cries for democracy were simply a mustache for their hatred of Israel and their love for Islamists and Sharia law. So to answer this dichotomy of perspectives succinctly I turned to my new DC-based Facebook friend and counter-terrorism expert/author, Walid Phares, to get his take on what Egyptians really want and most importantly, how they can best achieve their end-game:
Q: Egyptians must feel duped by swapping a secular leader for a religious despot in reformer’s clothes? What is your take on the distrust and frustration on the ground among Egyptians right now?
Phares: For decades, there was always a smaller core of Egyptians who knew all about the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafi allies. This core includes liberals, feminist movements, intellectuals and students activists on the one hand, and Christian Copts on the other. These civil society forces have experienced the tactics of the Brotherhood for years, particularly attacks by Islamists against Egyptian secular reformers and Coptic Churches and citizens.
The Brotherhood has longstanding experience in playing political double games since their inception in the 1920s. They had simultaneously approached the rulers of Egypt for cooperation while working against the state on the ground. They were suppressed by several Egyptian Governments for their role in coup d’état attempts, yet they found a way to survive through jihadi tactics of Taqiyya. This doctrine of deception at first glance allowed the Brotherhood to adopt only one part of their real long term agenda, in public, just enough to deceive their partners or foes.
When the Tahrir demonstrations began in January 2011, the Brotherhood waited to see if the youth could break through the regime suppression before they joined with full force. Then the Islamists worked with the Army to sideline youth, then with youth to outmaneuver the army, until they secured a majority in Parliament. Mohammed Morsi ran for president claiming he is confronting the candidate of former Mubarak supporters. He claimed a democratic agenda in order to sway a majority of voters who felt the Brotherhood had changed.
But since he was elected, the mask fell and a rapid Islamist agenda was imposed. It was only then that a much larger segment of Egyptians realized Morsi had fooled them. He promised a democratic state, but delivered an oppressive Islamist regime. The realization by most Egyptians that they were duped is a little delayed only because of the amount of power Morsi obtained in addition to the support he obtained from the Obama administration. The only other unexpected development would entail the rise of an exceptionally determined opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Q: Facebook and Twitter were instrumental in the onset and duration of the Arab Spring-turned-Islamic Winter in showing young Arab men and women how well many people around the world live. Eyes were wide open to opportunities readily available in the West. Will Arab nations choose to live in the past or the future? What is Egypt’s role in this?
Phares: As I projected in my book The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East (Threshold Editions, 2010), before the Arab Spring there was a convergence between many factors which resulted in uprisings. On one hand, a series of massive changes, some provoked from the outside as in Afghanistan and Iraq, other changes came from the inside as in Lebanon and in Iran.
The fall of the Taliban and of Saddam opened the path for elections in previously totalitarian regimes. That sent strong messages to the region's civil societies. The Cedars Revolution in Lebanon in 2005 and the Green Revolution in Iran sent even stronger messages. The two uprisings showed the Arab world that millions of unarmed civilians on the streets, if well organized, could challenge oppressive regimes and weaken their legitimacy.
On the other hand, these events happened at a time when online communications were outpacing all others globally and becoming popular. In Lebanon, SMS messaging mobilized the masses. In Iran, it was the “Twitter revolution.” In Tunisia and particularly in Egypt, Facebook led the way. In Syria, YouTube played a crucial role in opposing Assad.
In sum, there is a younger generation of bloggers, mobile users, and Facebookers across the Arab world, which is surging from Tehran to Beirut, from Damascus to Cairo. It is growing by the day and will push for a change in the political reality of the region. Westerners were late to understand the youth surge within Arab civil society and Iran and now are expecting miracles to happen.
Many analysts and experts in the West and in the US are too simplistic in their hopes for the Middle East. Either they see an Arab Spring with promising tomorrows, ignoring the Islamist menace, or they see an Arab Winter, ignoring the gradual rise of the secular and liberal youth. In my book, I projected the fall of totalitarian regimes followed by a raging confrontation between the Islamists and the seculars, which indeed has happened and continues to happen in Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt.
So it would be accurate to state that today—two years after the start of the uprisings—there is no such thing as “an Arab world” acting as one bloc, making decisions and implementing them. There are political and ideological forces in the Arab countries pushing in different directions. The Islamists have the upper hand today in North Africa and are thrusting in Syria and Jordan. The secular democrats are resisting Islamists in these countries.
In Syria, it is a three-way struggle. The Baathist dictatorial regime is attempting to crush the opposition in coordination with Iran and Hezbollah. But the Syrian opposition, which has both seculars and Islamists, is pushing hard against Assad while each of its components is preparing for after Assad.
The dynamics of the Arab Springs are complex, and they need to be understood in the West to avoid surprises in the future. We already had a bad surprise in Benghazi where Islamist militias waged terror attacks against the US consulate, after it was believed in Washington that these Salafists were just “rebels against Gaddafi.”
In short, those who in the Arab world are struggling for real secular democracy are opposing those who are erecting the Islamist state. There is no “one Arab world” ruled by one type of elite anymore. The confrontation in Egypt today is at the heart of this struggle for the soul of the region. The secular Egyptians are fighting for freedom as a first line of defense for human rights worldwide.
Q: Clearly, Egypt has always been a pacesetter in the Middle East. It’s 1978 peace treaty with Israel and ongoing security cooperation to curtail border infiltration and arms smuggling is unparalleled, as is its prosperity due to embracing peace. How can Egypt resuscitate its downward economy, its more than six-foot under tourism industry, and become the Mecca of modernism and affluence again?
Again, we look at Egypt as a nation state with one consciousness and we wonder why is Egypt going in one or the polar direction. We need to change the parameters of our understanding in the Middle East. We need to look at the forces at work inside these countries, at their agendas, their strategies and their plans.
Egypt, as the late President Sadat used to say, is almost half of the Arab world. Egyptian politics have enormous influence on the Sunni Arab majority in the region. The Peace process between Israel and the Arab countries, and even with the Palestinians, it wasn't possible before an Egyptian President would actually break taboo and visit Israel to seek peace. So it took a national leader to stir Egypt in one direction in its foreign policy.
The Islamists opposed and some of their Jihadists assassinated Sadat. This shows that there are trends inside Egypt. The uprising showed that civil society as a whole in Egypt grew intolerant vis-a-vis authoritarian powers, and Mubarak fell. But not all demonstrators had the same views. You had seculars and the Islamists with different views. Now they are fighting for which direction Egypt is going heading. And, as a result of instability, the Egyptian economy goes down. It can't be resuscitated before a new Government is up and running but a Government that would address social economic crisis and of the market simultaneously.
The Brotherhood’s first priority is not Egypt's healthy economy, it is Jihad and Sharia. Islamist totalitarians have never produced a successful economy along with freedoms. Look at Iran and Sudan.
As for Saudi Arabia, had it not been for oil and the lack of basic freedoms, their economy couldn't have been stable. If the Brotherhood takes over Egypt, the country will suffer unprecedented crises in its economy and political stability. Besides, Islamists will eventually crumble the Camp David agreement with Israel, support Hamas and draw the region dangerously closer to a new cycle of confrontations and violence.
Q: President Obama was quick to throw Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak curbside, yet we haven’t heard anything similar in regards to President Mohamed Morsi? You said the other day via a Facebook post that “everyone in Washington knows Obama supports the Muslim Brotherhood.” Can you be more specific?
Phares: It is time to understand the policies of the Obama administration, the ones that are public and those that are obvious. If you compare the various Obama administration policies regarding the Middle East uprisings, you'd clearly see that the positioning of Washington regarding these demonstrations and protests is proportional to the outcome of these revolts.
When the rising masses are targeting Islamist regimes, the Obama position abandons the uprising. When the revolt will end up with an Islamist takeover, the US position swiftly sides with the revolt. These are not theories, these are measurable realities. In June 2009, when millions of Iranians, mostly young (and female) were demonstrating against the Ayatollahs, President Obama stated the US “wouldn't meddle.”
But when the demonstrations in Egypt exploded, the Obama position evolved in two stages. As long as it was the youth and seculars on the streets, Washington stayed in the middle. But when the Muslim Brotherhood entered Tahrir Square en force, President Obama meddled “strongly by asking Mubarak to step down.”
Same scenarios occurred in Tunisia and in Libya and seem to be repeating itself in Syria. Observers and commentators in the region, particularly in Egypt, aren't shy about this description. They clearly state and provide evidence for an alignment of the Obama administration with the Muslim Brotherhood. US lawmakers for the past few years have been warning that the administration is favoring the Brotherhood fronts in Washington and seeking their influence in national security and foreign policy.
Well, since the Arab Spring and particularly this year 2012 in Egypt, this alignment has never been clearer. Ironically, the Obama administration denies siding with the Brotherhood because the American public wouldn't digest such an un-American positioning. It would be the equivalent of an American partnership in the 1930s with the national socialists or the Italian fascists.
Today, in the Arab media there are hundreds of articles, statements and panels openly exposing and criticizing the Obama administration support to the Islamists in general and the Brotherhood in particular.
Q: How would you rate the efforts of the Obama White House in comparison with any efforts made by the previous WH administrations in regards to Egypt, Israel and the greater Middle East?
Phares: The previous White Houses differed on many issues but maintained a unified US national security position on where the threat was coming from and how to confront it. The Obama White House made a dramatic change to the perception of the threat, thus of the enemy and, by ripple effect, on US strategies.
The current administration dropped the notion that there is an ideology working against the US, other democracies and against civil societies in the region. Since day one, the bureaucracy of the administration eliminated US study of Jihadism, Salafism and Khomeinism, the basic fundamentals for the understanding of al Qaeda, the Taliban, the hundreds of Jihadi groups and the Iranian regime and its allies such as Hezbollah. It is like dealing with the Soviet Union without mentioning Bolshevism, Marxism-Leninism or Communism. It does not make sense.
This retreat from the war of ideas had incalculable consequences on the efforts against global terror. It led to failure to defeat al Qaeda which is growing, to defeat the Taliban, as powerful as before, and to stop radicalization. This administration has unilaterally stopped the confrontation while the foes continued. That is a major difference with all previous White Houses. In fact, there is no threat in the current national security doctrines. It is an ad hoc situation.
The consequences in the region were clear. Iran has developed greater weapons and influence. And the US position regarding Israel has shifted to its minimal positioning. You can see major differences on Iran between Israel and the United States. And last, the current White House administration is facilitating the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt instead of partnering with the democracy and secular forces.
Q: The Arab Spring taught us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the Holy Grail of the Middle East. Poverty, joblessness, uneducated masses and a heavy reliance on Islam as opposed to Pan Arabism of prior decades has come full circle as the real problem in the Middle East. How can Egypt help the Arab League and the United Nations embrace and resolve the real problems in the Middle East instead of playing the blame game with Israel via umpteen unfair UN amendments singling out Israel each year and bogus Gaza “war crimes?”
Phares: It was a major mistake in past decade to perceive the many conflicts in the Middle East as solely centered on the “Arab-Israeli” conflict or “Palestinian-Israeli” tensions. There were and are dozens of equally dramatic conflicts, drama and human tragedies in the region. I used to tell panels on al Jazeera in the years following 9/11 that there were more political prisoners in the Arab world than people living in Gaza. And that the lack of freedoms in the region will explode soon in multiple uprisings. The interlocutors would reject that notion claiming all that Arabs wanted was the support to the Palestinian cause.
When the Arab Spring exploded, we saw what happened. There was no Palestine in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria. There were no Israeli and US flags burned in Tahrir Square in the first wave of the spring. This was evidence that Arabs had many problems to solve, while their elites and leaders where solely focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict. From Sudan to Kurdistan to North Africa, there are many ethnic groups oppressed and seeking freedom. From now on, the Palestinian issue is one among a dozen of issues in the region.
Walid Phares has served as a Terrorism expert at NBC from 2003 to 2006 and is a contributor at Fox News since 2007. Please follow Walid Phares on Twitter.
Jennifer Hanin is an Act For Israel founder, journalist, blogger and author of Becoming Jewish. Follow Jennifer on Twitter.