Thomas Friedman talks revolution, Islamism and democracy in Cairo

Ahmed Feteha, May Alaa, Randa Ali, Monday 9 Jan 2012

The world renowned New York Times columnist advices Egypt's liberals to work with the Islamists

Friedman was the target of harsh criticism on his views regarding the Iraqi War and Gaza (Photo: Randa Ali)

Prominent American author Thomas Friedman spoke at the American University of Cairo (AUC) on Monday, where he expressed his views on Islamist political ascendancy in the wake of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls.

“This country is very heavy for any political parties to lift it on its own,” Friedman said during a panel discussion, hosted by former Egyptian ambassador to the US Nabil Fahmy. “We need collective action.”

Friedman also stressed the importance of opening dialogue with Egypt’s Islamist political forces, asserting that Washington should abandon its longstanding strategy of allying itself with single heads of state and begin allying with the people.

Friedman, who was a vocal proponent of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, also stated his belief that Egypt’s Islamists would eventually see a clash between their core principles and modernity. Unlike Saudi Arabia and Iran, he said, Egypt lacks the oil revenue to ease the inevitable collision.

“We saw voters in Egypt concerned about jobs, security and education,” Friedman, often touted as an “expert” on Middle East affairs, said. “These are the questions Islamists will have to deal with.”

Following Egypt’s parliamentary elections, which are set to conclude on 11 January, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is poised to become a leading force in Egypt’s post-Mubarak political landscape.

“They [Muslim Brotherhood] have never had to make hard choices because they have never been in power,” Friedman, who also pens a widely read column in the New York Times, explained. “They were elected on promises, and – four years from now – they will be judged on their performance.”

Friedman went on to draw a comparison between the Egyptian and Indonesian models. In the latter case, Islamist parties swept democratically held elections in the 1990s, but soon lost ground after failing to meet voter’s expectations.

In answer to one question – “Is Arabism being replaced by Islamic nationalism?” – Friedman said that, during the Mubarak era, the Egyptian political arena had been dominated by Mubarak’s ruling party and Islamist parties. “As for [Egypt’s] liberal parties,” he noted, “these are only four months old.”

Responding to a question posed by Ahram Online on the future of Egypt’s free-market economy under an Islamist-led government, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner said that Islamists would eventually be forced to adapt to “modernity.” He pointed out that the relatively lenient positions adopted by Islamist parties on certain controversial issues – like the regulations governing Egypt’s tourism industry – represented a clear indication of this trend.

Friedman added that the independence of Islamic religious authorities, such as Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar – long marginalised due to its close association with the state – could play a role bridging the gap between Islamic tradition and the modern world.

Members of the audience also questioned Friedman about US presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who recently made headlines with his hard-line stance on Iran and the longstanding issue of Palestine. “We have our own extremists,” Friedman said, adding, “Rick won’t be president.”

The writer went on to blast certain elements of the US political system, especially the inflated role played by big business in US policymaking and legislation. 

“It’s fascinating how the revolution empowered people in [Egypt],” he said, going on to warn of the possible effects of institutionalised corruption on Egypt's newfound democracy. “Our congress [in the US] has been a forum for legalised bribery,” he said, going on to warn that, “Money will kill your democracy like it did ours.” He added: "Keep your eye on the money."

Not everyone present, however, welcomed the high-profile author. Some AUC students in attendance vocally protested Friedman’s presence at the university, holding signs aloft asking, “Why a war crimes supporter at AUC?”

"Our protest isn’t just against Friedman – it’s against the policies of our university, which were closely associated with the former regime,” said Roqaya Tbeileh, president of the university’s Quds Club, who took part in a small protest against Friedman’s visit. “And now they bring a supporter of war crimes,” she added in reference to the controversial writer.

During a question-and-answer session, Friedman faced the ire of Youssef El-Korma, a member of AUC’s student leftist movement. “You can’t come here with a smile and preach to us on democracy when you’ve been demeaning Arabs and supporting war crimes in Gaza and Iraq,” said El-Korma. “We don’t welcome you here.”

El-Korma’s assertions were met with applause by the audience but failed to draw a response from Friedman, who replied to another student critic earlier by saying that, "In the Middle East everybody wants to own you, and if they can't, they will try to destroy you."

Short link: