Starring into the Abyss

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Sarah N. Stern and Kyle Shideler

We are in the midst of an earthquake, and all of us wish for clarity and simple solutions.  After years of observing the highly repressive and autocratic regimes in the Middle East, we can’t help but identify with the dissidents in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The government’s shutting down of the Internet and the unwarranted violence against journalists and human rights activists, let alone their arbitrary arrests and torture, give us in the West, on first blush, a strong sympathy with the voice of dissent.

Of course, nothing is black and white, particularly in this decidedly complex and thorny region of the world. We have arranged screenings of the movie, Iranium, the new documentary on Iran’s nuclear program,¬ and the parallels between the 1979 Khomeini revolution and what is happening now in Cairo are chilling. Like in 1979, diverse segments of the population — secularists, Marxists and Islamists — are united in their desire to overthrow the current regime. As in 1979, the Islamists are the best organized and have swooped in to fill the void. At this moment, it appears that the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized voice within the opposition.

The issue for Israel and for all those who desire peace and stability in the region is critical. More than 30 years of peace, albeit a cold one, with its southwestern neighbor has been a source of much calm and reassurance in Israel.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has promised to step down by September. Over the years and decades, he has successfully sidelined, weakened and diminished all viable political parties, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood. This was not accidental. Mubarak’s pattern has been to constantly come to the West for more financial support and threaten that if we do not build him up, the Brotherhood would take over.

We have also learned from the 2005 Gaza elections that voting does not a democracy make. Democracy entails the institutions of a free society: separation of powers, an independent press, an independent judiciary, freedom of religion and freedom of assemblage. The great hero in the struggle against the Soviet Union’s evil empire, Natan Sharansky, expressed this powerfully in his book, The Case for Democracy: Democracy is the freedom of people to stand in the middle of the town square and criticize the government without fearing arrest or physical harm.

The critical question remains: What does the average Egyptian feel?

From the American mindset, it is very difficult not to support the people in the street, opposing a regime we know to be authoritarian and corrupt. We are, after all, heartened that 59 percent of Egyptians and 69 percent of Jordanians believe that democracy is preferable to all other forms of government.

Those numbers come from a May 2010 Pew Research poll of Muslims in the Middle East. The majority of Egyptians, we’re told, favor freedom. Further, 70 percent of Muslims in both Egypt and Jordan are “somewhat or very concerned” about “Islamic extremism in the world.”

Yet, a December 2010 Pew poll by of Egyptian Muslims found that 82 percent favor the stoning of adulterers, 84 percent believe that apostates from Islam should be put to death and 77 percent believe that thieves’ hands should be amputated. In Jordan, the numbers are only slightly lower: 70 percent support stoning, 86 percent seek death for those who leave Islam and 58 percent favor amputation.
When it comes to specific terrorist organizations, the numbers, fortunately, drop off slightly. Sixty percent of Jordanian Muslims and 49 percent of Egyptian Muslims support Hamas. That’s no cause for applause, however, since those percentages represent roughly 3.5 million people in Jordan and 35 million people in Egypt.

Perhaps Pew should have followed up and asked whether the respondents were “somewhat or very concerned” that there wasn’t enough Islamic extremism in the world.

Had White House press secretary Robert Gibbs seen these numbers, would he still have said that a reformed government “has to include a whole host of important, non-secular actors that give Egypt a strong chance to continue to be [a] stable and reliable partner”?

The United States needs reliable partners, but we must be vigilant about with whom they are partners.

The biggest non-secular actor in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, says that the Egyptian people should prepare for war with Israel. Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood has already declared war against the United States, a fact that evidently eluded Gibbs’ attention. Gibbs pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood is not on the State Department’s terrorism list, as Hamas is. But as the former Israeli spy, and author of Son of Hamas, Mosab Hassan Yousef, has repeatedly warned, “Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood.” And Hamas retains close ties with Iran, from which it receives political and military support.
Too often, elections are treated as a synonym for freedom. But elections mean only the rule by the majority. What happens when the majority wants not liberty, but just a different type of repression?

The struggle for American policymakers now is how to support liberty while knowing from the Gaza-Hamas experience that endorsing elections will not necessarily provide it. This is a fine line to walk. American policymakers ought to keep in mind that elections are not ends in themselves. Elections are a possible means of ensuring individual liberty and the freedom of conscience for individuals. However, in a society where 84 percent believe in religiously mandated execution for free thinkers, elections will not serve this end until there is a process of cultural examination and a rejection of certain long-held beliefs.

That is why it is extremely important that a transitional period in Egypt be established in which the many diverse and disparate voices have an opportunity to participate in a free and open public debate. The critical question here is the participation of the Egyptian military, the highest respected institution in society.

Only if the military maintains the order and stability necessary for this transition period can Egypt avoid quickly spiraling down into the path of yet another Islamist dictatorship.
Only the relatively recent tendency towards multiculturalism causes us to reject the idea that modern Western values of individual liberty and human rights are superior to a view of individuals as being locked into a 7th century code of conduct, with the death penalty for disobedience.

There are those in the Middle East, after all, who agree, like the 16 percent of Egyptians who believe a person ought to have the right to leave his or her religion without being murdered. The United States should be pleased to work with those who seek to make that change to their society. But being a democratic state ourselves, and being supportive of individual rights and freedoms, does not require us to endorse “a whole host of important, non-secular actors.”

It also should not require us to support a tyranny of the majority over a tyranny of the minority.  Remember Hitler also came in through the process of “democratic elections”.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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