January 31, 2011
The Egyptian Revolt and Imperial IslamismBy G. Murphy Donovan
The Arab revolt underway in Egypt may be unique. Previous popular uprisings were underwritten by anti-colonial sentiments. Contemporary revolts (including unrest in Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, and Jordan) target nationalist or secular governments. The wealthiest Arab states, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, have been financing the ideological struggle against Arab secularism through surrogates like the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood (al Ikwan) for decades. Now the most populous state in the Arab League, Egypt, may fall to the Brotherhood like a ripe pomegranate.
A brief history of previous Arab revolts offers some perspective.
The corrupt Ottoman caliphate in Istanbul was the target for the first Arab revolt (1916-19). The goal of Sherif Hussein bin Ali was a unified Arab nation stretching from the Levant through the Arabian Peninsula. Bin Ali's revolt against the Turks was successful with the help of the British -- and then undermined by colonials with a different agenda. London had little sympathy for Arab nationalism; the English enemy in WWI was the German/Turkish axis.
Thus, the first conflict set the stage for an inevitable second revolt (1936-39) during WWII against the British and a nascent Zionist Movement. This uprising was limited to Palestine and was less successful than the first. Both revolts were, for the most part, footnotes to larger world wars where Arab interests were subordinated to big power politics.
Nonetheless, the two 20th-century Arab insurrections were part of a historical vector which eventually saw the creation of 22 separate nation-states. The vision of Arab unity, however, was savaged by centrifugal tribal and national sentiments. Still, those early revolutions laid the political and military foundation for the so-called Arab-Israeli struggle which has defined war and politics in the Middle East for the last sixt years. For many Arabs, including Arab-Americans like Edward Said and Helen Thomas, the creation of Israel was merely another vestige of colonial injustice.
Today, the ongoing revolt in Egypt is nothing like previous struggles. Sunni angst has turned inward after six decades of terror and thrashing against Israel and real or imagined enemies in Europe and America. The apostate is slowly replacing the infidel as a primary target. In the process, radical Sunnis may have adopted the Shia mold of irredentist renewal.
Compare the many futile and impotent Arab wars of the 20th century to the Persian revolution since 1979, a model of theocratic efficiency. Indeed, Iran is now on the cusp of first-world nuclear status, defying an impotent West and positioning itself to challenge Arab/Sunni hegemony within dar al Islam. Lebanon and Iraq are poised to join the Shiite Crescent, too. Persian revanchism could well be the new model for radical Sunni imperialism in the Arab world.
Al Jazeera has been covering the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts with breathless abandon, celebrating the disturbances as the legitimate and "peaceful" aspirations of an oppressed fellaheen. Somehow the looting, arson, and body bags in Cairo belie such arguments. Emirate propaganda organs like al Jazeera always speak with two voices; English language broadcasts offer dulcet tones of peace and moderation, putting the best spin on the insurrection, while Arabic language programs howl with hate and invective using expatriate Egyptian Brotherhood spokesmen.
Apologists defend the Muslim Brotherhood as a political reform movement and ignore the Qur'anic imperialism which underwrites the movement and its objectives. Indeed, the incendiary writings of Sayiid Qutb and, more recently, Yusuf al-Qaradawi (below), a Qatar-based firebrand, are almost exclusively predicated on Islamic religious literature.
Al-Qaradawi is an archetypical mouthpiece for the worst Brotherhood vitriol. He is the author of numerous books and tracts, but more significantly, he hosts the most popular broadcast on the al-Jazeera network. His show, "Sharia and Life," reaches over 50 million Arab-speaking viewers with a message that reeks of paranoia, misogyny, homophobia, racism, violent jihad, and all manner of anti-democratic venom. Recently one of his fatwas alleged that Hitler was "Allah's" messenger punishing the Jews. In another pronouncement, al-Qaradawi justified female circumcision and wife-beating. He actually claimed that some Arab women enjoy physical abuse. Al-Qaradawi also maintains a significant online presence.
It is no coincidence that al Jazeera and al-Qaradawi find refuge and financial support in Doha. The Emirates and Saudi Arabia, to paraphrase Churchill, seek to appease the Sunni crocodile, hoping that Arab autocrats will be eaten last. The many grievances of the Arab street are real enough; but al Jazeera, a Brotherhood flack, has been shut down in Egypt for prudent reasons.
The Muslim Brotherhood, officially illegal, is the largest and most well-organized political alternative to the Mubarak regime. Al Ikwan, like Hezb'allah in Lebanon, is in fact a government within a government -- sedition leavened with health and humanitarian services.
Throughout the current revolt, al Ikwan in Egypt has maintained a low profile for good reasons. If Mubarak is deposed by a "people's revolt," surely to be followed by some kind of "moderate" interim government, then the Muslim brotherhood is in the catbird seat to make Egypt's first legitimate election the last. Indeed, Egypt could be a replay of Algeria in 1991. Only this time, there is little chance that a theocratic electoral victory in Arabia's most populous nation will be nullified.
Al Jazeera and its American network "partners" seemed to be channeling Jimmy Carter on the Sunday morning chat shows. Christiane Amanpour on ABC spoke of a "popular uprising" and freedom. Martha Raddatz spoke of "human rights and democracy." Tom Friedman on NBC courted the "moderate Muslim center." Possibly worst of all was the BBC's Katty Kay suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood be accommodated in any post-Mubarak government.
The hagiographic network coverage of the Egyptian revolt ignores every recent political precedent in the near East; the Iran revolt gave birth to the first Shia theocracy, and a recent election elevated terrorist Hezb'allah in Lebanon. The electoral victory of fundamentalism in Algeria in 1991 had to be undone by the Army. An election also brought terrorist Hamas to power in Palestine. And now Tunisia and Egypt are tottering towards the abyss. Electoral alternatives to the status quo in the Arab League are not likely to be enlightened or democratic.
The Irish, who know more than a little about the debits and credits of revolution, like to say that the "devil you know is better than the devil you don't." Mubarak may be a flawed ally, but other options are monstrous. Not only is Egypt a linchpin for Middle East stability, but it, like Turkey until recently, has been a bulwark against the worst excesses of Islamism. If Egypt falls to Islam's worst, the outlook for Israel and the rest of the Muslim world is bleak indeed.
The loss of Egypt to Islamic theocrats will be more consequential than the loss of Iran. Elections are just another arrow in the fundamentalist quiver. Unfortunately, too many naïve observers in the West confuse voting with democracy.
The stakes in this most recent Arab revolt have little or nothing to do with Egyptian or any other variety of Arab nationalism. Democracy, economics, and social justice are minor players, too. Another victory for Sunni radicals is the prize if the Egyptian revolt is successful. Egypt represents a tipping point -- a validation of Imperial Sunni Islam and another stimulus for religious extremism.