Sunday, February 6, 2011

Is Egypt A Nation of Hip Facebook-Adept Youth?

By Barry Rubin

Here is the real issue: What do the masses want? Remember, it is the people of Egypt--especially in an election--that will determine the outcome, not just the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, and not just Facebook-adept youth in Tahrir Square.



That's Egypt's problem. Here's ours: We all want this revolution to succeed and create a stable, democratic Egypt. But will it do so? And it is absolutely necessary for people to point out the dangers. For how else can policymakers try to avoid the dangers?


I promised myself I wouldn't waste any more time on Roger Cohen but he said something so fascinatingly puerile that it gets to the center of the problem. In dismissing the potential threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, Cohen wrote:

"Already we hear the predictable warnings from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu: This could be Iran 1979, a revolution for freedom that installs the Islamists. But this is not 1979, and Egypt’s Facebook-adept youth are not lining up behind the Muslim Brotherhood, itself scarcely a band of fanatics."

That Cohen thinks the Brotherhood is "scarcely a band of fanatics" is due to his remarkable obtuseness. Note, too, the patronizing dismissal that the leader of a country that has fought many wars and buried many dead might be worried about a revolution next door that could well again force his country to defend itself against a neighbor that has twelve times as many people.

What's really interesting, and shows the true mark of the provincial thinking that he's a sophisticate is this: The population of Egypt is 90 million people. How many of them are urban, consumer-oriented, Facebook-adept youth who want to live in a relatively secular, stable democracy at peace with its neighbors?

Like the American journalists and diplomats who based their view of Tehran on the wealthy, cosmopolitan people they hung around with thus missing the Iranian revolution's real course, or the famous story of the New York socialite who couldn't understand how Reagan won because, "No one we know voted for him," Cohen thinks the world is made in his image. Here's an example of how this divide manifests itself in Pakistan.

Remember, too, that all of Egypt is not Cairo and Alexandria. There are hundreds of villages where peasants won't be voting for the same party as Cairo's Facebook-Adept Youth. And in Upper Egypt there are a lot of Christians trembling at what neighbors might do to them--based on precedent--if there is no order and a rising Islamist movement.

So Cohen's may be right that the Facebook-Adept Youth aren't going to join an Islamist group but they aren't the whole population of Egypt. For him to be blind to that simple point is a strong indicator of how the masters of the media and public debate are so clueless about the real world.

But there are other interesting issues here. Is technology destiny? That is, when you have television, radio, cds, computers, satellite television, Facebook, Twitter, Internet, and so on, does that mean you have to be modern, liberal, and democratic? That idea has been shattered (though the news has not caught up to Cohen) by a lot of events. Think of Khomeini's effective use of cassettes with his speeches to mobilize support in Iran, or how Islamists have used Internet so effectively.

It might be that in the long run high-technology gives the masses tools for independent thinking and action. But the Islamists have used these tools effectively, often more so than the reformers. Technology is more value-neutral than many in the West think.

The woman (and the fact that it's a woman is in itself significant) credited for starting the Egyptian revolution is enwrapped in a chador that's pretty comprehensive, even by Egyptian standards. That doesn't mean she's an Islamist, but as far as I've seen nobody asked her about her political views.

By total coincidence, a young Egyptian just asked to join my Facebook. His profile includes pictures of scantily dressed Western singers. And he lists his political heroes as: Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood hanged by Nasser, Edward Said, Malcolm X, and the Iranian Islamist theorist Ali Shariati. Oh yes, and he also likes Christiane Amanpour.

What’s really interesting is his philosophical statement, which a Western observer might easily misunderstand. The basic message is this: Egyptian patriotism is out, Arab nationalism is out (“ethnocentrism and chauvinism”) the only thing important is Islamic identity and having an Islamist state. The reference to “jahili” is to the period before Islam began, a time of ignorance and paganism, all of whose customs and beliefs should be rejected. Note also his rejection of any pride in Egypt’s ancient past:

“I am…just trying to be a real Muslim. Although I was born in Egypt… and I do love my country very much, but it ain't relevant to my identity by any means. I'm a Muslim, so this is my identity and nationality. Wherever exists any Muslim; its my home country, and wherever exists a human; its supposed to be my home.

“I hate both ethnocentrism, and chauvinism; talking about stupid mythical ethnic purity, like Nazism, Zionism, and fascism, its a Jahili (Ignorant) habit. Also being proud of an ancient civilization that I haven't share its building; is totally ridiculous, and sounds slavish!!

"The fatherland is that place where the Islamic faith, the Islamic way of life, and the Shari'ah of God is belief and a way of life, and only this relationship is worthy of man's dignity.

“Grouping according to family, tribe, nation, race, color or country, are residues of the primitive state of man; these jahili groupings are from a period when man's spiritual values were at a low stage. The Prophet -peace be on him- has called them `dead things' against which man's spirit should revolt. Thus Spoke Sayyid Qutb."

So he wants an Egypt in which Shari’ah is dominant and all other inputs are thrown away. And the quotation of the radical anti-American Sayyid Qutb makes clear where his loyalties lie. Liking Mariah Carey and Sayyid Qutb simultaneously is quite possible. His statement is almost like an Islamist version of John Lennon's song, "Imagine."

So here is the real issue: What do the masses want? Remember, it is the people of Egypt--especially in an election--that will determine the outcome, not just the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, and not just the Facebook-adept youth in Tahrir Square. And even many of the Facebookistas are also pretty extreme.

That's Egypt's problem. Here's ours: We all want this revolution to succeed and create a stable, democratic Egypt. But will it do so? And it is absolutely necessary for people to point out the dangers. For how else can policymakers try to avoid the dangers?

I can't resist adding that these are the same people who would look down on Americans from rural areas or small towns, the pious, the conservative, those who own guns, and so on. In their own culture they have strong views and know how to read  social signals. Ironically, in a real sense they distrust their own masses. In short, much of the American elite thinks that the Tea Party or evangelical Christians are dangerous while the Muslim Brotherhood isn't.


Abroad, though, and especially in the Third World, their perceptions get even more confused, tangled up in the exotic and unfamiliar. They look for those who think like them, dress like them, and speak good English. Then they project those characteristics onto a whole society. Often their counterparts, whether intentionally or not, mislead them.

Even then, are they aware that the Muslim Brotherhood controls both the doctors' and lawyers' associations in Egypt? Or that Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, is head of the Syrian Internet Society?  Or that radical Islamists have been far more effective at using the Internet than liberal reformers?

The only hope for people who don't understand these things is to get a really smart anti-Islamist cab driver between the airport and the luxury hotel in Cairo who can set them straight.

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