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Amrikan wa Ikhwan (Americans and Muslim Brothers)

The following op-ed was written for Al-Ahram Weekly early in the week, before the protests against the US embassy had erupted. Unable to pull it from the print edition of the Weekly in time, it's published here as a link

Hani Shukrallah , Thursday 13 Sep 2012
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As we get older our progressively deficient memory banks tend to maintain an even firmer grip on that little storehouse of anecdotes of our lives, tightly tucked into some special place of our brains, stretching well into our childhood, and remarkably immune to the deletions of data that sadly happen with greater frequency as the years go by.

The irony of memory, however, is that while we can retain such “periodic memories” with remarkable clarity for a great many years, we tend to forget when and in whose presence we last recounted them, thus the horror on the faces of our children and near friends and family when we embark upon yet another retelling of one of our favorite anecdotes.

What any of the above has to do with Americans or Muslim Brothers will be made clear forthwith. It was in fact an advance warning for the retelling of an anecdote, which I’ve recounted many times before, once in writing in (if memory serves me) an op-ed in Al-Shorouk daily. So do please forgive me if you've heard it all before.

I was editor of Al-Ahram Weekly, the "worst ever president," in US history  (as American historian Sean Wilentz styled him in a 2006 Rolling Stone essay) was in office, and I had received an invitation to dinner at the home of one of the senior members of the American embassy in Cairo. 

It was a low key affair including a few embassy staff and a handful of other Egyptian invitees; the guest of honour however was a charming lady, whose name I cannot recall, but who held some high State Department post concerned with democracy and human rights.

As we sat to dinner, the question was put to us Egyptians: what could the US do to help promote democracy and human rights in Egypt. I'm afraid my own reply was somewhat facetious:

"Have President George W. Bush make a strong declaration in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood, slam the regime's repression of the country's foremost peaceful opposition group and support its right to legality and fair competition for political power in the country," I suggested, smirking wickedly.

The idea, facetious as it may be, was that such a declaration would be tantamount to killing two birds with one stone. The Americans, for once, would show some consistency in their protestations of supporting democratic rights in the region (I had always supported the Brotherhood's right to legal existence). But secondly, a declaration of support from George W. for the Brotherhood would be like a kiss of death.

If effective, the Brotherhood presumably would win the right to legally compete in free and fair elections, but touched with the magical Bush brush would get very few votes.

My American hosts graciously chuckled, understandably with more politeness than enthusiasm.

(Let me interject here that I had no idea at the time that Washington was secretly offering training programs in the art of revolution, as former minister Abul Naga has been declaiming, in court and outside it. I'd been waiting for a popular revolution for the best part of my adult life, even worked at it for a number of years, but to no avail. Had I known that doing it was as easy as attending a few American workshops, held in unpronounceable parts of Eastern Europe, I would have signed up for one immediately. American courses in the art of revolution would probably include lectures in the Declaration of Independence, a wonderful document, while training in "confronting the police and army" (to quote Ms. Abul Naga, yet again) would most likely involve intensive instruction in baseball, a wonderful sport, with a view to strengthening the Egyptian revolutionaries' stone-throwing aim and arms.)

But maniacal ravings aside, there are two serious "morals" in my dinner parable. Obama is not Bush, yet even with an Obama administration, American declarations of support for democracy and human rights, especially in our part of the world, leave me cold; and so for that matter does the European variety.

This is for three main reasons: firstly, such declarations invariably prove to be ineffective. Authoritarian regimes will readily bow to American pressure, even frowns, so long as such urgings have no bearing on their authoritarian privileges. The lightest touch on this extremely sensitive sore-spot, however, transforms them into staunch anti-imperialists, veritable Kim Jong Uns all, ergo Ms. Abul Naga.

Secondly, it's insincere. There's an enormously wide field of trade-offs, where pressure for democracy and human rights could gain you anything from renditions for the complementary torture of Jihadists to a tighter siege on Gaza or the removal of government subsidies on this or that basic commodity.

The Achilles' heel of US/Euro support for Arab democratization however is Israel. So long as the enslavement of a whole population, their perpetual disenfranchisement, and their ongoing dispossession fails to impress them as in any way constituting gross violation of human rights and democratic principles, people in this region will simply not believe them.

The second moral of my anecdote has to do with history's sense of humour. My dinner witticism proved prophetic, even if via a circuitous and wholly unpredictable route.

Indeed, one of the more fascinating aspects of Egypt's always amazing, ever astounding post-revolutionary political twists and turns has been the new found love affair between the Americans and the Muslim Brotherhood.

And it makes complete sense, even if Mubarak's clowns, many of whom were likely on the CIA's payroll, keep shouting conspiracy.

The "Arab Spring", with the Egyptian revolution at its heart, had made it starkly evident that the aging and decrepit Arab police states, self-pronounced bulwarks against "Islamist extremism", had become wholly defunct. Meanwhile, the Egyptian revolution, brilliantly and with tremendous courage, able to overthrow the old regime, found itself woefully unprepared to take up the task of building a new one in its place. 

Which, it goes without saying; put into stark relief the question of who's to take over the reins of power in the country.

Very early on, it was becoming clear that the Americans had fallen upon the Brotherhood as such a viable alternative.

And it was as if the match had been made in heaven. The American ambassador in Cairo, according to no doubt exaggerated press reports, was paying weekly visits to the Guidance Bureau. I personally spoke with quite a few prominent American journalists and think tank experts, and was invariably taken aback not so much by their favorable views on the Brotherhood, but of the eagerness with which such views were expressed.

I may find it amusing, but I don’t mind it at all. After all, no one committed to the cause of democracy in Egypt and the Arab world would like to see a repeat of the travesties we witnessed vis-à-vis the FIS in Algeria, or Hamas in Palestine.

And from the American point of view it is good policy. The Muslim Brotherhood, the very fount-head from which global Islamism in all its variations has sprung, comes to power in Egypt, the largest Arab state and potentially one of the most influential countries in the Muslim-majority world, in the wake of a popular revolution, via the ballot box, shows itself willing to play (largely) by the rules of parliamentary democracy, is happy to work with the US and the West generally, and is offering firm assurances where they count most: viz. Israel and Iran.

For Washington, still mired in wars against Islamist extremists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and to a certain extent Iraq, the model provided by Egypt's Brotherhood is the answer to a most fervent prayer.

For us in Egypt and across the Arab world, the US-Brotherhood love-fest is interesting for another reason: A Muslim Brotherhood that commits to the Egyptian Israeli peace treaty; that will not act in Sinai without coordination with the Americans and Israelis; and that makes deals with the IMF is a Muslim Brotherhood rendered concrete. The rarified realm of God-inspired opposition is no more.

The ostensibly sacred is now profane.  

 

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