Tuesday, November 27, 2012

800 Words: Who is Mohamed Morsi?

In August of this year, a huge deal was made in the press about Mohamed Morsi’s trip to Tehran for the 16th summit of the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ so that he could personally hand over the presidency from Egypt to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in Iran. Virtually every policy expert in the world agrees, the Non-Aligned Movement is a colossal waste of time and resources. In 2012, Non-Alignment doesn’t mean anything. Non-Alignment was a policy option for many third and second world governments during the Cold War who didn’t want to be in lock step with the dictates of either the United States or the Soviet Union. Today’s Non-Aligned Movement is for all purposes a ineffective counterweight for all the other countries in the world against the US and the EU. Virtually everybody else (except Israel, of course) is either a member-state or an invited observer.

The visit by the new Egyptian president was seen by many in the West as the first step in a thaw of relations between Iran and Egypt which had existed since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the same year in which Iranian revolutionaries deposed the Sha of Iran with a coalition of Islamists, leftists, moderates, and liberals. The parallels between the quickness with which the radical Islamist Ayatollah Khomeni consolidated power was seen by many as being in strong parallel with the quickness with which Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, achieved power in Egypt. It was seen by many that Morsi was doing everything he could to play up that parallel and that it would be a harbinger of the end of Iran’s long isolation in the diplomatic world. Thomas Friedman opined in the New York Times that his very presence at the meeting was a signal of hostile intent against the West and the democracy which Western thought represents.

And yet when Morsi arrived, he turned everybody’s assumptions for how the meeting would go upside down. Morsi blasted the Assad Regime in Syria for its repression and mass murder, for its neglect of democratic principles, for its disrespect of rule of law, and by extension, he blasted the Iranian regime whose support of Assad is so crucial to both regimes. In the ultimate insult, Morsi likened the Syrian struggle for freedom against Assad to the Palestinian struggle against Israelis. The Syrian delegation walked out, and as the host country, the Iranian representatives had to sit still as this lifelong critic of the United States gave a lecture in Tehran that could easily come from George W. Bush’s mouth.

But like George W. Bush, only much moreso, Morsi has a record of beliefs and membership that is abysmally far from the values he preached. Not only is Mohamed Morsi a US critic, he’s also a 9/11 truther. As late as 2010, Morsi was still alleging  that 9/11 was an inside job. About the Israel/Palestine conflict, he stated that ‘The two-state solution is nothing but a delusion concocted by the brutal usurper of the Palestinian lands.’ These statements of belief are not in themselves too different from those one hears on the proverbial ‘Arab Street.’ But Morsi belongs to an organization far more dangerous and cultish than even the Republican party, and that organization would not select him as their first leader to ascend to the Egyptian presidency if they were not positive that he is a perfect representation of their beliefs.

Like any successful organization, the Muslim Brotherhood gives their members a sense that they belong to something greater than themselves, and therefore the lack of freedom within the organization can be forgiven. Like all effective religious organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood is a combination of religious order, social club, and political action committee. It should go without saying, but women are not permitted, no matter how religious. Like any fraternity, the recruits of the organization have a period of evaluation during which their suitability is assessed. That period can last from five to eight years, during which their ability to tow the party line is assessed closely. Those who display signs of iconoclasm are summarily drummed out of membership. When Brotherhood youth activists, many of the same ones who organized the protests against Mubarak, expressed opposition to the Brotherhood consolidating themselves in post-Mubarak Egypt as a single party – the Freedom and Justice Party, with Mohamed Morsi as its leader – they were immediately thrown out of the Brotherhood. When a relatively liberal Brotherhood leader, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, announced that he would run for President, the Freedom and Justice Party’s President – Mohamed Morsi – announced that the party was not ready to endorse a candidate, and then the Brotherhood threw Fotouh out. When younger Brotherhood members announced their support for Fotouh, they too were thrown out.  

The brotherhood’s first stated goal is an authoritarian one: the widespread imposition of Sharia law. Its second goal is an imperial one: to unite the Islamic world. This is the Muslim Brotherhood creed: “Allah is our objective, the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader, Jihad (Holy War) is our way, and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of all our aspirations.”

This creed is not merely authoritarian or imperial. Those final two phrases will be familiar to anyone who has studied movements as different as Nazism and Communism and the Crusades and the KKK. It is the totalitarian credo. To the totalitarian, a great death is the highest honor life may bestow. And because a great death is so honorable, it gives totalitarians the spiritual cover their consciences require to do any beastly act in the quest to bring about their glorious end. In achieving their great death, they die so that a new, more glorious world may begin. Even if their world is one of squalor, these totalitarians have spent their lives killing, maiming, raping, and torturing so that a world can be born free of the acts they perpetrate. And yet after all those glorious ends, the new beginning never happens, and the bloody, ignominious suffering of millions happened for no reason at all.

And yet for the moment, Morsi’s proven quite practical in his foreign designations. It was Egypt, not Saudi Arabia, whom America was first to consult during peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine – and America consulted him because he was smart enough not to give any indication that he means to give up on the Israel/Egypt alliance. For all the rhetoric which Morsi and his party have issued against Israel, Morsi has thus far been surprisingly cool-headed on the issue.  He even went so far as to send Israel’s President Shimon Peres a letter in which he said “I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region including the Israeli people.” A  Morsi spokesman later denied the veracity of the letter to his own people (a tactic many Israelis will remember as being straight out of Yassir Arafat’s playbook), but it doesn’t change the fact that the letter exists, and it says something encouraging (though not too much so) that Morsi is obviously convinced that the appearance of diplomacy is necessary.

Time will demonstrate whether Morsi means to plan for war while keeping the appearance of diplomacy. But whether or not he means to be a democrat, he clearly means to keep the appearance of an authoritarian. It’s hardly clear why Mohamed Morsi declared his edicts above judicial review, but he did so in such a way as to announce that his ultimate goal is to rule by decree – and also did so in such a way that he had to compromise with the judiciary to come to an understanding. It’s entirely possible that the whole mess was a masterful plan to show corrupt judges sympathetic to the military that he was not above overturning their decrees – or maybe it was just an extraordinarily clumsy power grab. But the end result was that he will not be seen as a democratic reformer for the foreseeable future – and when dealing with a country used to dictatorship, perhaps that’s necessary, even if he's really a democrat.

But if Morsi runs too afoul of democracy and peace, there are still some rather enormous incentives to keep Egypt stable – principle among them the $4.8 billion check Egypt requested from the IMF to stop their reserves from being depleted and the $1.7 billion check which the United States cuts to Egypt every year as a reward for unimpeded access to the Suez Canal, being at peace with Israel, and not remilitarizing the Sinai Peninsula. Should Morsi become a ‘War President,’ this money would dry up faster than the Dead Sea (hiyo!).

And yet right after Morsi left Tehran, he went to Beijing to visit Hu Jintao. Trade between China and Egypt is was $8.8 billion of business last year – a 30% increase over 2010. The Muslim Brotherhood may yet find that they can behave as bellicosely as they like and still get a source of funding should the US funding dry up.

It is simply not in Morsi’s interests to be too democratic or too diplomatic. Money should matter to the Muslim Brotherhood, and there should be no doubt that it does. But even if the US doesn’t give it, China might. And even if Morsi decides to broker peace between Israel and Palestine and institute democratic reform, there is still a larger problem.

Even if Mohamed Morsi is truly a moderate, or even a relative liberal in his own way, the organization which backs him is not. And any organization which spent the large majority of 84 years railing against American imperialism will be none too happy about an state ruled by an Islamic party that must still be dependent on America for its funding. And even if Morsi convinces the Muslim Brotherhood to a man to follow him in the accommodation of America and Israel, there is the added problem that 25.5% of the Egyptian parliament is comprised by three other Islamic parties – all of whose principle objection to the Brotherhood is that its goals are too moderate.

We liberals have a bad lot. We want to hope against wanting to hope that this revolution will be different, in spite of the fact that it hardly ever is. For all the Velvet Revolutions and constitutional republics, there are more authoritarian regimes which topple in great expense of blood and treasure, only to create a terrible power-vacuum in which a still more authoritarian regime takes over – sometimes a totalitarian one. It is virtually hopeless for a liberal rule of law to succeed in any country in which rule of law is lacking. If the judiciary is dishonest, if speech is censored, if elections are not fair, what is the point of democracy?

The perfect is the enemy of the good, the good the enemy of the adequate, and the adequate the enemy of the bearable. Over and over again, we’ve been wrong about the conditions which are required for revolutions to succeed. We were already wrong about the Liberal/Islamist alliance in 1979 Iran. We were wrong about the Liberal/Communist alliance in 1948 China and 1917 Russia. We were wrong about the Liberal/Nationalist alliance of 1848 Europe, and we were wrong about the Liberal/Military alliance of 1789 France. Many of us were even wrong about the liberal/conservative alliance of 2003 America/Iraq.  In Egypt, the protests against Mubarak were 2 million strong – a high number until you realize that the total population of Egypt is 80 million. Those voices were not heard in the debates leading up to the toppling of Mubarak, but we hear them now; and what they have to say is terrifying.

There is a paradox within liberalism that while it can compromise on details, it can have no possible accommodation to other ideologies. The end goal of every political compromiser is either to ensure greater liberty, or to ensure less. Therefore, all elements of a ruling government must share the end goal of allowing for greater liberty - because in a compromise with authoritarians, all the authoritarians have to do is to sabotage liberty until authoritarianism becomes necessary. If, as in the case of President Obama, the rule of law is still on the side of liberals, then some compromise is possible if the other side is rational enough to allow for one. But any liberal who wants to ride the coattails of a more bloody ideology to greater power is an idiot. By their very definition, authoritarians have more incentive and willpower to enact their agenda. In a fair battle between liberalism and authoritarianism, liberalism will always win. But there are very few countries in which that battle is fair. In a no-rules battle with other ideologies, the most  repressive and violent ideology always wins. And the winning ideology won’t make the mistake of allowing even the small amount of liberal discourse which enabled them to come to power. It may yet seem probable that Mubarak was the best which Egypt – and the entire Middle East – could hope for, and if he was, then we will be moist-eyed for the good old days when a dictator only killed a few thousand people to keep the peace. 

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