Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A New Egypt

Scott MacLeod, Time's Middle East Correspondent for the last 15 years and currently professor at the American University in Cairo, states what has become the obvious:
The Obama administration, and the rest of the world, must get used to the idea that there is a new Egypt and a new Middle East. The old order that was so comforting to Washington -- based on authoritarian regimes ruling over docile populations -- is over. The Arab world is undergoing a major transformation of power to the people. The outcome will be for the better. Egypt will move forward, not backward. Democratization in the largest Arab nation will have a tremendous positive influence on the entire region.

The collapse of the old order has come suddenly. It is imperative that Obama move with equal speed to accept and embrace the change. If he does so, he may be able to help influence the creation of a new order. If he does not, he will engender more anti-American bitterness that will imperil America's relations with a democratic Arab world. Imagining that things can go back to the way they were is dangerous wishful thinking. The President should sack any advisor who is still presenting policy options with that paradigm.

U.S. policy must be immediately revised to take into account of the coming political dispensation. It must respect the will of the Egyptians and reach out to all leaders and parties that represent constituencies in the country. That includes first and foremost the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organization, but nonetheless one of the oldest and most durable in Egyptian politics.

Obama's hesitancy to embrace Egypt's freedom movement -- and the near-hysteria of some American "experts" -- reflects fears that Egypt is in the midst of an Islamic revolution. Eight U.S. administrations supported military-backed regimes in Egypt in the name of regional stability and notably preserving the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. There is zero chance that change in Egypt will bring an Iran-style fundamentalist regime to power. The army is not riddled with fundamentalism, is widely respected by the people, and will remain a hugely stabilizing force in Egyptian politics and society. The way ordinary Egyptians moved to protect their neighborhoods and clean up the streets after the outbreak of rioting underscored the country's rejection of instability. A representative government in Egypt will certainly introduce policy changes, but they will not be radical changes.

That is because Egyptians are not radical, and they have rejected radicalism. The Brotherhood has an Islamic program, but it supports a civil state based on Egyptian citizenship. It has long demonstrated a readiness to cooperate with other Egyptian parties, including secular and nationalist parties like the Wafd. It quickly announced its readiness to have Nobel Prize Winner Mohamed ElBaradei, a staunch secularist, to negotiate on behalf of the opposition. Egyptians are attached to Islam but by no means does the Brotherhood enjoy their overwhelming support. Credible estimates put the group's support at 20-25 percent or so.

It's not only the Obama administration that is having a hard time adjusting to the new reality in the Middle East. America's foreign policy establishment, in the form of the think tanks, experts on international relations and pundits who write about the Middle East, are losing their security blanket, too. One glaring example is Leslie Gelb, in a Daily Beast piece titled "Beware Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood," "Let's stop prancing around and proclaiming our devotion to peace, 'universal rights' and people power," says Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, belittling support for the Arab freedom movement.

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