On Tuesday night, PBS Frontline will broadcast an excellent documentary, Revolution in Cairo, on the recent protests. I know it will be excellent from having heard the reporter of the documentary, Charles Sennott, interviewed Thursday by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Sennott is a longtime correspondent on the Middle East and offerred an especially cogent analysis of the role of Islamist forces in Egypt. His reading of Egypt’s new political realities is a useful guide as America figures out how to respond; Sennott tells how to keep perspective as the established order is upended.
It was fascinating to hear Sennott and Gross talk about a popular movement — and possibly the political system it spawns — in which Islamist and secular forces work side-by-side. The main takeaway: just because the Muslim Brotherhood has a long-term vision that is anathema to non-Muslims doesn’t mean they want to impose that agenda or muscle out other social or political players. This apparent contradiction poses a challenge and an opportunity for the United States.
Don’t look so hard for “a monster”
The challenge is to resist the impulse in our own political culture to look for who we’re against — as John Quincy Adams put it, to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Look, if populations all around the world were just like us, and thought like we do, this would all be easy. One of the (many) major blunders in Iraq was the belief that we merely had to install Ahmed Chalabi, and the Iraqi people would rally behind Washington’s favorite freedom fighter.
Our reliance on Mubarak reflected the same problem. As Charles Sennott stresses, the United States forges these alliances in the name of stability, but we’re learning that they actually represent instability. One of the most interesting things he discussed with Terry Gross was the question of why the Cairo protests didn’t turn violent. Apparently it was mainly because the protesters refused to confirm Mubarak’s portrayal of them, his false choice between order (himself) and anarchy.
Regardless of the Muslim Brotherhood’s vision and doctrine, regardless of Egyptian public sentiment towards Israel, or any other political undercurrent that might give us concern, those are all side issues to the real challenges of a more equitable Egyptian society that brought people into the streets and brought together diverse Islamist, Christian, and secular movements to change their country.
A sane agenda
In other words, Egypt’s emerging leaders will probably be too busy with other challenges to take the steps we’d find most troubling. The temptation will be to prepare a dossier of every disturbing view or statement of the Muslim Brotherhood. Let’s watch the reform agenda and the new political order in Egypt — the practical measures by which the Brotherhood and other players chart a new course.
The opportunity part has to do with the contrast between the Islamists in Egypt and Al Qaeda, which is a movement based on the argument that change can only be accomplished through violence and terror. The peaceful overthrow of Mubarak is a devastating counterexample to bin Laden’s ghoulish call to murder and martyrdom. In sum, if we’re hasty in declaring Islamists to be enemies, we could once again end up just stirring suspicion toward the US through our choice of sides.