Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Muslim Brotherhood I

In February 2005, Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak promised that the country's upcoming presidential elections would for the first time allow opposition candidates to run. The announcement was a surprise and one that was seen by many as a vindication of America's policy in the Middle East. On the heels of the Iraq war, it appeared that democracy was spreading. Palestinian elections were scheduled for 2006. Soon thousands of Lebanese would take to the streets demanding that Syrian troops leave Lebanese soil. President Bush's promise of a democratic revival seemed to be taking form.

But what Egypt's 2005 elections revealed was a picture not to the Bush administration's liking. The people had announced their preference proudly and clearly. Their preference was for the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite widespread accusations of voter fraud and intimidation, the MB won 88 seats in Egypt's parliament, or about 20 percent, becoming by far the largest opposition block. Their achievement was particularly impressive given that the party had only fielded just over 100 candidates in an effort not to "frighten" the ruling National Democratic Party. In a result that would be repeated several months later in the Palestinian territories, it was clear that if America was going to support true democracy in the Middle East, it would have to accept a popularly elected Islamic party, not a secular one.

What is the Muslim Brotherhood? For starters, it's is a group that believes that Muslims should live in a society where Islamic law is the law of the land. But in recent years the organization, like Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, has also whole-heartedly embraced democracy as a means of gaining power. Unlike Hizbollah and Hamas, the MB in Egypt has no military branch and has sworn off violence to achieve political ends (at least in Egypt). In June I attended a protest against new laws that would restrict freedom of the press. The American ambassador did not attend, but a representative from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was there, busy railing against the new government censorship and giving interviews to anyone who would talk with him. When the Judges' Syndicate has protested state encroachment of judicial independence, the MB has stood with them in solidarity. The MB opposes the war in Iraq (as does the Egyptian government) and does not recognize Israel (the Egyptian government does) but in almost every other way, it appears that the MB shares America's stated desires for reform in Egypt. In press interviews, MB leaders have stated that within a Muslim Egypt, minorities would be allowed to worship as they like. Christians might be allowed to drink in private. Before the Lebanon war, there was even talk that the MB, if it came to power, might not cancel the Camp David accords. (Such talk ended during the war. At one point during the conflict, an MB spokesman said the organization was prepared to send 10,000 mujahideen to fight in Lebanon against the Israelis. It is a statement the organization has been backpedaling from ever since, especially considering such a move would violate Egyptian law). The big question, of course, is whether or not the MB would stick by the liberal promises it has made if it ever gained power

In mid-August, I returned to Egypt for four days, a short stop between trips from the US and to Eastern Europe. While I was back, I attended what was billed in a newspaper advertisement as a conference "in solidarity with Lebanon." The ad had been placed on the front page of The Egyptian Today, and announced that there would be two speakers, both professors, at an outdoor event at Cairo University's Menial campus. I decided to attend. What I found was not what I had expected. The journalist's protest I had attended included perhaps 200 demonstrators. The "lecture" I arrived at included thousands. The event was outdoors and the crowd was so large that a projector was set up 60 yards from the podium so that all the attendees could watch the speakers on a large screen. The place was packed. At the entrance of the park was a paved path that led back towards the Nile, which provided the far border of the area. The crowd itself was perhaps 40 yards wide. To keep things orderly, young men standing arm-in-arm stood between the path and the crowd, so that people could enter and move to the back. Each wore a black headband that read in white print "All of us are with you, Lebanon." As I waded to the back, and then around to the other side, I quickly realized this was not on ordinary lecture. As I arrived, the speaker and the crowd were engaged in a call and response. "God is Great," called the man at the lecturn. "God is Great!" boomed the crowd all around me. The next call and response was too difficult to make out. The first part was "Ya Yehud, Ya Yehud," ("Jews, Jews") and the second part included something about attacking Tel Aviv. It didn't quite rhyme. There were also chants for Hassan Nassrallah, Hezbollah's leader. It was only once I was on the other side of the crowd that I saw the large Muslim Brotherhood banner attached to the fence behind the lectern. I turned to a member of the crowd:

"How did all these people know about this event?" I asked. The man gave me a suspicious look.

"How does anyone learn about an event? Where are you from?"

I had not been prepared for his cold demeanor. "Canada," I responded.

"So how do people learn about an event in Canada?" He asked.

"Um, friends, advertisements," I said sheepishly.

"It's the same here." Then he hesitated for a moment. "Everyone here is Muslim Brotherhood," he said in a hushed voice.

A man on my other side, over six feet, thin, bearded and with piercing eyes, turned to me and asked in perfect English, "Where are you from in Canada?" His English was disarming. I said Vancouver. He asked me for my name. Reuben Johnson, I responded.

"That's in British Columbia, do you speak French?" He asked.

"No," I said, the crowd all around me.

"I thought everyone in Canada spoke French."

"Um, I think that's only in the Eastern part," I said nervously. He knows I'm lying, I thought. No one else seemed to be paying attention. I shot back awkwardly: "Do you know where the garbage is?" I had bought a piece of corn earlier, and throwing out the rind would now be my escape valve. He pointed towards the back, I turned around and fled.

If I had any doubts about whether or not a Muslim Brotherhood government would break relations with Israel, those doubts were erased by my mid-August experience. But while MB anger over Israel's war with Lebanon is real, so is the anger of the Arab street over the war. The real question is whether one only supports democracy if the result is America-fIendly policies. In my next entry, I'll explain how the American government has made it clear that it prefers the autocracy it knows in Egypt to the democracy it does not.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Nasrallah Rises

I apologize for the long break. I hope it will be my last for several months. I spent the last two weeks on vacation in Budapest and Vienna, and decided that I should not comment on Egyptian politics from afar.
Not It Girl posted a note on my previous entry that read, “Cairo is a state of mind.” I think she’s right. I was certainly back in Cairo before I was, literally, back in Cairo. My spiritual arrival occurred on the pleasantly cool tarmac of Italy’s Aeroporti di Roma. Through the magic of Expedia, I was able to fly from Egypt on Budapest and back for only 400 dollars, but because there are no direct flights between the capitals, I was forced to transfer planes in Rome. As one can imagine, there isn’t much of an ‘Arab feel’ to a Budapest-Rome flight. The Rome-Cairo flight is, of course, another story. It was on the bus from Terminal C to Alitalia’s Airbus A320 that, mentally, I arrived back in Egypt. The bus was filled with Arabs, gesturing, talking loudly and excitedly in a way that is foreign to your average American or European traveler. And it was at this moment, as the Bus’s engine revved, that the two Egyptians to my right began discussing Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.

I came in on the conversation as the two were discussing the problem of American Jews. The younger one, with a full head of hair and a well-kept suit, informed his older, balder, more disheveled friend that he had worked for some time in the ritzy resort towns of the Sinai, where many Israelis go for vacation. The problem with the Jews, he said, is that all of them have two passports, one American and one Israeli. The two men quickly agreed that there was no difference between an American Jew and an Israeli Jew.

The topic then changed to the war in Lebanon. Hassan Nasrallah, the older one said, was changing the world. America and the Jews were on the run, and perhaps the Jews would finally be pushed into the sea. Certainly, they agreed, there would be no real peace, until that happened.

During hostage crises, psychologists have noticed that many prisoners become attached to and identify with their captors, a phenomenon now known as Stockholm Syndrome. This condition is the only explanation for my initial response to such blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric. “Ahh,” I thought, “I’m back in Egypt!” The constant trashing of Israel and America that I had grown so tired of by late July was suddenly putting an ironic smile on my face. Here we go again, I thought eagerly.

The two Egyptians I stood next to are hardly alone in their hopes that Nasrallah is here to save the day. Once, that figure was Saddam Hussein, taunting the West in 1991 and refusing to give in, even under harsh sanctions. Today though, it is unquestionable that Saddam ultimately lost to America and Israel. Nasrallah has now taken his place as the stoic Arab, fighting for the Arab cause. Two weeks ago, a weekly independent magazine here included a free copy of a Nasrallah poster with every copy. Egyptians everywhere are having their spirits buoyed by the hope that Hezbollah’s ‘victory’ will be less superficial than Saddam’s was.

In a poll conducted by the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, it was found that Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s baby-faced, soft-spoken, straight-talking leader was considered more “important” than any other leader in the Middle East. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came in second. The first head of an Arab state to appear on the poll was Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, coming in 11th. The chairman of the center, Saad Edin Ibrahim, wrote about the poll in the Washington Post:

The pattern here is clear, and it is Islamic. And among the few secular public figures who made it into the top 10 are Palestinian Marwan Barghouti (31 percent) and Egypt's Ayman Nour (29 percent), both of whom are prisoners of conscience in Israeli and Egyptian jails, respectively. None of the current heads of Arab states made the list of the 10 most popular public figures. While subject to future fluctuations, these Egyptian findings suggest the direction in which the region is moving. The Arab people do not respect the ruling regimes, perceiving them to be autocratic, corrupt and inept. They are, at best, ambivalent about the fanatical Islamists of the bin Laden variety. More mainstream Islamists with broad support, developed civic dispositions and services to provide are the most likely actors in building a new Middle East. In fact, they are already doing so through the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, the similarly named PJD in Morocco, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine and, yes, Hezbollah in Lebanon."

My next entry will be on my thoughts on the Muslim Brotherhood