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When the Moderates are Radicals

Egyptian protests, February 2011

Photo Credit: Amr Farouq Mohammed Wikimedia Commons

Dear readers, I’d like to share with you a secret. Every day I read articles or some form of writings by people who claim to be experts on the Middle East. I have read them on the land; I have read them on the sea; I have read them in the air.
And they will never surrender to reality. Here are the two main causes of error:
–They think the Middle East is just like the West so they can extrapolate from their own experience. When someone would say, “If I were Yasir Arafat, I’d….” My response would be: Stop right there. I must run out to the corner store and get a pack of cigarettes. I have never smoked a cigarette. And I kept on running. You are not Arafat or Khomeini or Saddam Hussein or whatever and unless you have some understanding of how they actually think–and not your own Western pragmatic interpretation of what they should think–there’s no sense in discussing it.
–They think the Middle East is just what they’d like it to be. Peace? Easy. They have a plan. My response: I’d love to hear your plan but I’m all booked up to hear Middle East peace plans for the next three years. I’ll put you on the waiting list and get back to you. By the same token, they sometimes lie to make things seem better. You can’t criticize the Palestinian Authority–or the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Turkish regime, etc.–even by telling the truth about it because that would damage the cause of “peace.” They don’t understand that not telling the truth is the best way to undermine any chance for peace, or any understanding of why there is no peace.
The Middle East is so strange in Western terms, so different, and having its own unique history and institutions that unless you are really aware of those differences please pick something else to be an expert on. Yet the previous statement–so taken for granted by previous generations of specialists–is something near heresy today in the West. Write a sentence like that and you can forget about getting an academic job or receiving tenure. You might even be attacked as an enemy of the people. In other words, error is institutionalized, which guarantees its prevalence.
And that brings me to a case in point that I have before me right now.
The Wafd is a “liberal” “moderate” Egyptian party, right? It is the biggest non-Islamist party in Egypt’s parliament with 7.6 percent (pretty pitiful, huh?) of the seats. So if you are a Western reporter, policymaker, or “expert” you would say that it is one of the great hopes—perhaps the greatest—for moderate liberal Egyptian democracy, right?
And the same people, of course, explain that revolutionary Islamism isn’t really a threat because they are really just all greedy people who’d rather have U.S. aid than Allah.
But how many “liberal” ”moderate” parties have had:
–A deadly shoot-out between two factions over control of their headquarters’ building?
–An alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood which might again be renewed.
–A deputy leader who explains that September 11 was a U.S.-Zionist plot; the Holocaust never happened; and Anne Frank was a phony?
–And now this article, courtesy of the party’s official newspaper, January 27, 2012. Thanks to MEMRI for catching and translating it. I’ll let you read the whole thing for yourself if you want but briefly the article charges that a small U.S. Navy Medical Research Unit in Cairo that conducts research on tropical and Third World diseases is in fact engaged in plotting to send:
“Medicines, pesticides, food products, and seeds [to Egypt], after these have been dangerously tampered with so as to harm the Egyptians’ health” and handling “biological weapons which, if deployed, could exterminate the entire Egyptian nation, or any other nation….”
“They can also manipulate these Egyptian genes, alter their traits, and deform them by means of American medicines or vaccines that are sold dirt cheap to the poor Egyptian people, along with crop seeds and food products…. “
It suggests that various disease epidemics in Egypt were caused by the United States and charges that the U.S. installation, “sees the Egyptian children as an opportunity to test new medicines,” turning the country’s children into lab rats and causing increases “in infertility, mental retardation, and disability among Egyptians born in recent years… as well as [instances of] impotence.”
And all this is done, “in accordance with America’s will, which has Israel standing forcefully behind it” to develop biological weapons for Israel against Egypt.
This one article is a rich source of knowledge about Egypt and the Arabic-speaking world not so much in terms of health issues but in terms of political and intellectual structures. Of course, there are the common conspiracy theories and the idea that the Zionists are everywhere but that’s only the beginning of the issue. Don’t be fooled into thinking that conspiracy theories are silly, funny, archaic ideas that don’t mean anything precisely because they are inaccurate.
Here are some of the implications:
–An American attempt to help Egypt (while also shielding itself from disease) is portrayed as a harmful and aggressive activity.
–The priority for the nation is to fight foreign conspiracies not to fix domestic shortcomings.
–Since internal problems are blamed on outsiders they are thus made impossible to solve. Science and modernity are viewed not as solutions but with suspicion as attempt to destroy one’s own society through imperialist takeover, social transformation, and atheism (or Christianity imposed on Islam).
–If Americans are so evil then it makes sense for people to become terrorists and to slay or drive out the horrible villains. Isn’t it reasonable to slay Americans in revenge or in self-defense? Now important Egyptians are also claiming that U.S. embassy officials are running over Egyptians with their cars (apparently U.S. embassy vehicles were stolen by criminals).
Together these four symptoms block progress, inflame hatred and extremism, and produce conflict. This is a common pattern in the Middle East whether aimed against Israel, the United States, or the West in general.
And guess what? Except for the last sentence of the third aspect, these are also the talking points of hegemonic Western leftism.  It’s all there: the West is evil and wants to dominate; underdevelopment is not the result of traditional society and thinking but Western threat and conspiracy; fighting the West from outside and weakening it from inside are justified.
So, in short, the Islamists are not “moderate” and many of the alleged moderates are not moderate. Hence, the hope for moderation and real democracy is limited by the small numbers of those who hold them. We were told not so long ago that the young, social-media using kids who made Egypt’s revolution would dominate the country thereafter.
Question: What percentage of the vote in parliamentary elections did the young, social-media using kids who made Egypt’s revolution get?
Answer: 1.3 percent.
This article originally appeared in Rubin Reports.

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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