Monday, January 31, 2011

Egyptian Intransigence Ominous

Egyptian Intransigence Ominous
By Hal G.P. Colebatch on 1.31.11 @ 6:05AM

No one knows how the present rioting in Egypt is going to turn out, though it is a safe bet that, in the endess dusty jerry-built tower-blocks ringing Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood is watching and waiting to seize its chance.

British journalist Peter Hitchens wrote recently: "The most potent [Egyptian] opposition movement is the Muslim Brotherhood, and the most popular cause is enraged hatred of the neighbouring State of Israel." Actually, I think the most popular cause amongst ordinary Egyptians is continuing to get their U.S.-subsidized daily bread. But it's not ordinary Egyptians who tend to sway events there. If I were a tourist I'd keep well away at the moment.

As in all Muslim countries, the religious and the political can hardly be separated in Egypt. Given this, it is highly significant that, when the Pope spoke out following the latest massacre of Coptic Christians, not only did the Egyptian Government recall its Ambassador to the Vatican, but in addition top Muslim academics stated that they have suspended all dialogue with it.

This decision was announced by Ahmed el-Tayeh, president of al-Azhar University in Cairo and members of the Islamic Research Authority. The news was reported on the website Ahram Online, which is dedicated to covering news of interest to Muslims in the Middle East. A Vatican spokesman said in response that the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was "collecting the information needed to adequately understand the situation."

The news came about a month before a scheduled annual meeting of the joint committee of the Pontifical Council for Dialogue and the Permanent committee of al-Azhar for dialogue Amongst the Monotheistic Religions, established in 1998.

Even before considering the possible outcomes of the political turmoil in Egypt, this story is important because it illustrates the enormity of the gap between Muslim and Christian ways of thinking in the 21st Century -- and Egypt is a relatively Westernized country with a modern economy of 80 million people and a history of European contact stretching back to the dawn of European history. The re-opening of the great library at Alexandria has been a conscious effort to provide the world with a showcase of its age-long scholarship and culture. Its governing regime, though unlovely enough, is a U.S. client, and as the experience of Iran indicates, is a good deal better for Western interests than some all-too-possible alternatives, all the more so because it shares borders with Israel and Gaza.

The Pope's comments were, as might be expected, couched in the most polite and diplomatic language. They could not, by any sane standard, be taken as aggressive or inflammatory. In the wake of the massacre of Copts in Cairo and elsewhere he simply asked governments in the region to adopt effective measures for the protection of religions minorities. The Pope commands no military force and has no Earthly tool but moral persuasion. There is no doubt that a good deal of thought went into the phrasing of the statement so as to neither make the lot of the Copts worse nor to give the appearance of abandoning them -- or, for that matter, of abandoning a beleaguered Christianity.

It is impossible to imagine how either a government seeking normal relations with the West or the senior Muslim academics of Egypt could argue with this. And in fact they did not argue: there is an almost refreshingly unambiguous simplicity in their reaction.

The Muslim academics in effect delivered an ultimatum to the Vatican: they would condescend to speak with its representatives only so long as no protest against the killing of Christians was made, that is, so long as the Vatican, as the world's leading Christian institution and the leading international expression of Christianity, gave up all moral ground.

Plainly, it seems that any suggestion that they might be concerned as to what the rest of the world thinks about this might as well be couched in Martian.

Further, of course, there is a possibility that any overly strong protests by the Vatican will result in further reprisals against the Copts, a whole community of hostages. There is an echo here of the issues raised by the martyrdom of Edith Stein, a Jewish-born Catholic nun and distinguished theologian. When the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940 Edith Stein was sheltering in a Carmelite convent. When the Dutch bishops made a statement condemning Nazi persecution of Jews, the Nazis in retaliation seized Edith Stein and all other Jewish converts to Christianity in Holland. She perished in an extermination camp.

The case of Edith Stein -- and it was by no means unique -- reminds one of the appalling difficulties and dilemmas the Vatican faces in attempting to protect or at least speak out for Christians at the mercy of savagely anti-Christian regimes. The strategy that Western Christianity is confronting does not seem particularly hard to understand. To speak out seems bad. To remain silent may be in the long run infinitely worse -- that way lies the spiritual and perhaps ultimately the physical death of the West.

And in the meantime, what is President Obama doing about it? With a worse-case situation of much of North Africa going up in smoke, and with British defence forces on the scrap-heap and France looking determinedly after France alone, it appears that any salvation may have to come from the US (Already the British Daily Telegraph is claiming "Egypt is not our business" -- they may soon be taught better) . Handling this one may not be easy, and it would put the cleverest, most capable, and most courageous of U.S. Presidents to the test.

Egypt and the Realpolitik of Violence and Freedom
By Daniel Oliver on 1.31.11 @ 6:08AM

President Barack Obama's Friday evening statement on the situation in Egypt reminds us of George Orwell's comment that sloppy writing leads to dangerous political thinking.

"Good evening," said the president (ritually, if, under the circumstances, inaccurately). "As the situation continues to unfold, our first concern is preventing injury or loss of life." Our first concern?

Egypt has been our most important ally in the Arab-speaking world. The United States gives $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt annually, and has given $28 billion in economic aid since 1975. We've done that for a reason. The Middle East is a metaphorical salad of dominoes waiting to fall and a powder keg waiting to blow. Islamist extremists plot, and live to plot, the end of the Great Satan and its consequence, chaos. Egypt has been a realpolitik force in opposition to that plotting.

But according to the president, our first concern is preventing injury (sprained ankles?) and loss of life. Maybe that's just a sop to the vegans and animal rights folks (the 2012 election looms). But a president facing the prospects of Armageddon starting, and in the nature of Armageddon, ending, on his watch might nudge other concerns into first place.

The president called on the Egyptian authorities "to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters." The mind reels. What could the president have meant? Had he not seen the coverage of the riots in Cairo? How do you have a peaceful riot? How do you have a peaceful riot in the Middle East? These folks are not the Women's Christian Temperance Union -- and come to think of it, there was nothing peaceful about the WCTU or its most famous member, hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation.

"At the same time," continued the president, "those protesting in the streets have the responsibility to express themselves peacefully. Violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms that they seek." A few minutes later, the president said, "Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people." The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, had sounded the theme earlier in the day: "There's no situation that -- this is certainly not a situation that will be solved by violence."

Where to begin? Either the protesters will succeed, however success is defined, and therefore will have succeeded by resorting to violence. Or the Mubarak regime will survive, however that is defined, because its violence was more violent than the violence of the protesters.

Whether the situation is "solved" depends on where you're throwing your bombs from. Whoever wins this struggle will have succeeded through the use of more or better targeted violence.

"Now ultimately," said the president, "the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people." What did he mean by that? "Should be determined by the Egyptian people?" Maybe. But "will be"? It hasn't been for decades -- if ever. Ultimately, as Keynes remarked, we're all dead. And for a lot of Egyptians this week, "ultimately" may come rather sooner than they had expected.

What should the president have said? There were two options. One is: nothing. Never underestimate the advisability of saying nothing. The United States has few good options in this situation. Keeping quiet may preserve whatever our best option is.

The second option would have been to teach -- but the president is not good at teaching, as he demonstrated in his State of the Union speech. And teach whom? He could have outlined, for the American people, the dilemma: realpolitik vs. idealism. Kissinger vs. Bush. Perhaps Kissinger vs. Bush for Dummies. But how likely is it that that lecture would help the United States win the hearts and minds of whoever wins the tanks and guns in Egypt?

Besides, the president may not have thought through that dilemma (after all, his State Department took the wrong side in Honduras!), so he's coasting on liberal shibboleths. Violence is bad. Violence is counterproductive. Floss after every meal. But that is dangerous thinking, which, pace George Orwell, can proceed to, as well as from, sloppy writing.

To think that violence is always bad is not to know, as American soldiers know, along with the millions of people in far off lands that their bravery has liberated down through the years, that violence can be the handmaiden of freedom.

Freedom for the Egyptians, however, is still years away, as it is for millions of their pitiful fellow Arabs, whatever is midwifed by the current violence. And however great the interest of the Egyptian people is in their own freedom and human rights, it is eclipsed, even if they don't realize it, by the national security interest of the United States.

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