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Getting Priorities Wrong in Egypt and Syria: Three Media Case Studies

A sign in the Golan Heights showing the way to Damascus.

A sign in the Golan Heights showing the way to Damascus.
Photo Credit: Tsafrir Abayov / Flash 90

But it is dangerous to pretend that a solution in Syria will make the Sunni-Shia battle go away. The most likely change is a post-Assad regime that would strengthen the Sunni side in the regional picture. That’s good if you feel Iran is the main threat but bad if you worry about growing Sunni Islamism.

The other point is even more serious. Nasr advocates bringing Russia and Iran into some kind of joint solution in Syria:

“But the single most important participant would be Iran. It alone has the influence on Mr. Assad and the trust of various parts of his government to get them to buy in to a transition.” This kind of talk makes for an op-ed likely to be published and appreciated in the United States, but such arguments have no connection to the reality on the ground.

The interests of the outside and inside parties are too much at odds. Anyone who imagines that the current regime and the opposition can form some kind of coalition arrangement under international pressure is imagining things. And when analysts promote fantasies they are not doing anyone a favor.  Even if such a thing would be cobbled together it would collapse in weeks.

Let’s face reality. Either Assad will survive and unleash a bloodbath or he will be replaced by the opposition, which might unleash a bloodbath. Again, that’s why the main priority must be to support moderates, including Kurdish nationalists seeking autonomy, in the opposition. Moreover, why should the United States possibly want to please Tehran, whose regime is the world’s leading source of international terrorism, anti-Americanism, subversion in the Middle East, and antisemitism that is doing everything possible to obtain nuclear weapons and using them for aggressive purposes? Of course, at times one can overreach and compromise can be useful. Yet the dominant idea in the current era seems to be that helping your friends and weakening your enemies is some kind of bizarre belief. In Syria it makes no sense at all.

My third case study is Los Angeles Times article about growing Islamism and radical Islamic intolerance in Egypt. It is welcome that the newspaper is actually covering this story. But there’s something very curious in the article. Every example of extremism is portrayed as being Salafists. The Muslim Brotherhood are the moderates:

“President Mohamed Morsi, a religious conservative, has called for tolerance, but many Islamic fundamentalists see a historic moment to impose sharia, or Islamic law, on a country left off balance by political unrest and economic turmoil.”

In other words, there are these bad extremists who want to impose Sharia but fortunately the Muslim Brotherhood and the president it elected are against it!

The article continues:

“The struggle between ultraconservative and moderate Islamists has reverberated through generations. It is as critical a balancing test for Morsi as his battle to pressure the Egyptian military to relinquish control over the nation. Morsi courted Salafis during his campaign and is now confronted with their agenda and insistence that he not appoint a woman or a Christian as a vice president.”

I don’t think the Brotherhood was eager to appoint a woman or a Christian as vice-president, since its position on the issue has been identical to that of the Salafists. To portray Morsi as a man who might want to restrain the Salafists somewhat makes sense but only in the context of having the same goals but more patient tactics. If the Muslim Brotherhood is now the protector of democracy, moderation, and tolerance in Egypt, those three virtues don’t have much of a future there.

The article is on somewhat better grounds by calling the al-Azhar university establishment as “moderate thinkers,” though they are also capable of very radical stances. Yet there’s another problem here: eventually the government will remove the al-Azhar leaders and replace them with reliable Brotherhood members.

And the article seems wrong when it says, “Moderates call for a document based on the “principles” of sharia, which would be less strict and offer broader civil liberties to women as well as Christians and other non-Muslims.” According to reports in the Egyptian media the Salafists have accepted the “principles” approach because of another provision that the meaning of that term will be determined by clerics and not judges. And, anyway, isn’t Morsi and a parliament dominated by Brotherhood and Salafist legislatures going to be choosing judges in future? And there are plenty of radical Islamists who can and will become court judges.

About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.


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3 Responses to “Getting Priorities Wrong in Egypt and Syria: Three Media Case Studies”

  1. Charlie Hall says:

    I keep reading about the alleged existence of moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood. But nobody seems to be able to identify an actual person who fits that description. They should be easy to find; there are real religious moderates and even religious liberals all over the Muslim world, and at times they have even won elections such as in Indonesia and apparently now in Libya. Who is a moderate in the Muslim Brotherhood?

  2. Devora Khayyat says:

    Moderate Muslims might be hiding from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and who could blame them?

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