Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Egypt: Where Bookburners Are Heroes and Democracy Advocates Are Villains

By Barry Rubin

Hala Mustafa is one of Egypt’s leading thinkers regarding contemporary political and international issues. Recently, she’s been the subject of a campaign to destroy her career because of something she did which has made her the object of hatred amidst the Egyptian professional and intellectual elite: She met for a few minutes with the Israeli ambassador to Egypt.

The Mustafa case is a real sign of how things work in the Arab world, far different from the assumptions so often made by policymakers, journalists, and both experts and “experts.”

Thirty years ago, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula, captured in the 1967 war, to Egypt, providing that country with a valuable strategic and economic (Suez Canal and oilfields) asset. Relations were nominally normalized though the Egyptian government limited tourism and trade. The Egyptian media continued to treat Israel as a demonic and enemy state. Egyptian professional associations, many under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned their members from any contact with Israel.

It was in this context that Israeli Ambassador Shalom Cohen asked to visit Mustafa’s office to discuss a symposium he wanted to hold, in which Egyptians, Israelis, and Palestinians were to discuss the peace process. After a short discussion, Mustafa told him that she would have to consult her bosses about whether she could participate.

The head of the Egyptian journalists’ association has claimed this violates the group’s 1983 boycott of Israel and therefore Mustafa should be punished. Whether or not this actually happens, she is under a severe and vicious verbal and print assault.

To understand Mustafa’s complex position is to learn a lot about the contemporary Arabic-speaking world. Egyptian professionals and intellectuals can often be truly mediocre, slogan-spouting people who resemble the bureaucrats of the Soviet Communist regime. In contrast, Mustafa is clearly a serious and bright person, as became immediately evident to me in our conversations and through her writing. She also really cares about issues of free speech and democracy while showing some real courage on their behalf.

But what’s a liberal intellectual to do? Her main job is as editor of the quarterly journal Democracy. While published in Arabic, I believe that more copies are printed in English. This indicates the journal’s purpose as a showpiece, designed more to show the West that the Egyptian government is democratic-minded than it is to spark real discussion in Egypt.

Indeed, the journal virtually never publishes articles about Arabic-speaking countries, much less Egypt. The quality of the material, to Mustafa’s credit, is good but it is hardly going to spur a struggle for democracy within Egypt. And, of course, it cannot publish articles about, say, Syria or Saudi Arabia, since those governments would then protest this as an attack by the Egyptian regime.

For Democracy is, ironically but typically in Arab political terms, a state publication. Mustafa’s bosses are the heads of the al-Ahram Center. Al-Ahram is Egypt’s leading newspaper which is controlled by the state. It runs editorials, for example, claiming that the United States is responsible for all the terrorist violence in Iraq because it wants to split and rule Arabs and Muslims.

So a propaganda arm of a dictatorial regime is the publisher of the main journal in the Arabic world that nominally advocates democracy. If you understand that paradox, you get a concept of the situation.

What keeps the journal from being a stolid mouthpiece is the effort of Mustafa to do as much as possible within the limits permitted. At the same time, she is a member of the ruling National Democratic Party's policy planning staff, a point that is even more significant when it is noted that this is part of the apparatus of Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and likely successor.

None of this is said to criticize Mustafa. If you want to know more about the constraints under which liberal reformers work in the Arabic-speaking world and why they are doomed to fail, at least in the short- to medium-run, you can read my book on the subject which is still quite up to date: The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, John Wiley Publishers (2005).

It has now been reliably reported that the entire al-Ahram group has decided to boycott Israel entirely and to punish Mustafa. Note that this means the staff of Egypt's leading newspaper and Egypt's largest international affairs' research center will be forbidden from meeting Israelis (and perhaps from reading any Israeli publications?). In other words, no reporter can interview any Israeli. If anyone from this large media group would even have a conversation with me, they could be subject to firing.

And who appoints the head of the al-Ahram group and determines its policy? Why, President Husni Mubarak, the man who is supposedly a great U.S. ally, whose country hosted Obama's speech of conciliation when he spoke about the greatness of Islam, criticized Israel harshly, and urged Arabs to make peace with Israel. This is Mubarak's answer but no U.S. official will acknowledge that fact and it will not enter into U.S. policy.

Meanwhile, a key theme in Obama's strategy is the abandonment of any support for democratic change--which was a historic liberal position long before President George W. Bush thought of it--and close cooperation with the Arab regimes. This is a defensible tactic on one condition: that the United States gets something out if it. And this doesn't seem to be happening.

As for Arab liberals, they are being abandoned by the United States and the West in general. Here's one little anecdote that gives you a sense of how hard is the life of Arab liberals. A Syrian dissident, who has spent a lot of time in prison, during the course of an interview said: "Our government is fascist" but a few minutes later added that it was vital to support the government. Why? Because he hates the existing repressive regime but fears a radical Islamist one, the most likely alternative, would be worse.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, while Mustafa is under attack, former Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni is a hero. Hosni was the supposed cultural custodian of Egypt at the same time as he was uttering antisemitic statements and told the Egyptian parliament that if he found any Israeli-authored books in Egypt’s libraries he would immediately and personally burn them.

Oh, and Hosni--like the al-Ahram media group--is also close to Mubarak, the man whom Obama looks upon as a close ally, the recipient of massive U.S. aid, the leader who has benefited by Obama's taking off the pressure over reform, etc.

In one of the few signs of sanity in the world recently, his behavior was too much even for the UN (which is saying a lot!) and he lost the election to be the next head of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural, educational, and scientific organization. In today’s atmosphere, it could not be assumed that a man who advocated book-burning might be rejected for the post of world’s leading cultural official. After his defeat, Hosni blamed an international Jewish conspiracy for his humiliation.

Egypt, by the way, is a country where despite about $2 billion in U.S. aid a year over a period of more than a quarter-century, the textbooks still claim that America secretly attacked the country in June 1967 and destroyed its air force in order to help Israel. And the media regularly publish articles on how the U.S. government or Israel were behind the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on America.

The story of Mustafa and Hosni is but one small tale of the contemporary Middle East. What are some of the lessons?:

--You can tell a lot about a country by who it regards as heroes and villains.

--The efforts of President Barack Obama have had no effect on the situation. The real problem is not due to U.S. actions or insensitivities but to the needs of the Egyptian regime. It requires America as a scapegoat to mobilize support for the dictatorship among those whose primary ideology is either Arab nationalism or Islam-oriented. Remember that the worst thing President George W. Bush did from an Egyptian government perspective was to advocate democracy in the Arabic-speaking world.

--There is almost no margin for the free functioning of intellectuals and democracy advocates in the Arab world. What the state doesn’t eat up, the extremist and repressive consensus devours.

--After thirty years of peace with Egypt, Israel is viewed with the same overweening hatred and slander as it was before the treaties were signed. Thus, real peace is extraordinarily difficult to achieve and is not subject to the kinds of expectations Western leaders and media have.

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. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).
To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books.
To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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