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Egypt, Israel, and the Muslim Brotherhood

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sayyid Qutb, intellectual pillar of the Muslim Brotherhood, was moved by an all-consuming revulsion at the moral corruption of Western modernity.

As chaos envelops Egypt and threatens the wider Middle East, an emerging divide exists among some thoughtful observers as to how far events will be shaped by the Muslim Brotherhood. In a liberalized political order, should one come about, the Brotherhood will have a role to play. Some observers fear this more than others, and how scared they are (or are not) depends to some extent on how scared they are for Israel, how skeptical they are about democratic state-building, or both. It’s one thing to long for dignity and freedom and another to bring them about. A wise American, Benjamin Franklin, noted long ago that desire for these fundamental human goods causes people to murder each other in droves. So it is not absurd to be cautious about the outcome of quick, free, and fair elections.

Franklin also knew that in politics one should take seriously what people say they really believe, especially about God and religion. And Franklin (though he sometimes denied it) thought some faiths and dogmas better suited to good political order than others. For instance, Franklin argued in print that the doctrine of original sin is a bugbear used by the clergy to scare people out of their wits and so bend them to the clergy’s selfish ends. Predestination, however, was for Franklin a more useful (if still absurd) idea, since there is nothing anybody (i.e., an ambitious preacher) can do about it.

If Franklin thought it important to consider what doctrines of faith people profess to believe, we might consider his wisdom in assessing the motives and intentions of the Brotherhood in a democratized Egypt.

It is important also to take seriously what people say they believe.

Last summer, a month after the Gaza flotilla fiasco and in reference to a Supreme Court ruling upholding the law against providing material support for terrorists (which could include information academics might provide in dealing with them), Scott Atran and Robert Axelrod wrote an interesting article for the New York Times arguing that it is important at least to talk to terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. They noted that former terrorist organizations—such as the African National Congress, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization—“have become our partners in pursuing peace and furthering democracy.” Atran weighed in again, just recently in the New York Times, describing the political weakness of the Brotherhood in Egypt and thus the unjustified fear of the Brotherhood in the West.

Of course, Israel talks to its terrorist foes when necessary (how else do they do prisoner exchanges or come up with Oslo?). It is also true that both Hamas and Hezbollah are quasi-state actors: they control territory, have concrete and valuable assets, provide social services, and rely on public support. But the three examples of terrorists-turned-democrats all have one thing in common: they fit the mold of what Bruce Hoffman calls the “ethno-nationalist insurrections that followed the Second World War.” These insurrections, which used terrorism to pursue concrete and limited political ends, were led by figures such as Menachem Begin in Israel, Makarios in Cyprus, and Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria. They were not primarily moved by religion, and none developed a culture of suicide and love of death.

As Gilles Kepel has recounted in “The Brotherhood in the Islamist Universe,” the Brotherhood’s fortunes in Egypt have waxed and waned, and its penchant for politics, which separates it from al Qaeda, has led to a tension between its radical Islamist goals and the danger of cooptation. Now that Hamas (created by the Palestinian Brotherhood in 1987) has come to power in Gaza, some hints of pragmatism have occurred. But it seems to me there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical and, with Franklin, to take seriously what groups like Hamas and the Brotherhood in Egypt say they believe about God’s will. A brief story is in order.

The Egyptian army owns a huge chunk of the economy, which on the one hand is a cause of Egypt’s economic malaise, and on the other hand gives poor promise of political and market reforms.

I first visited Israel in 1963 as a lad of 19. But I did not enter the country in the usual tourist fashion. Having fled the city of Damascus by taxi in the dead of night (it’s a long story), I arrived in then-Jordanian Jerusalem sick and in need of rest and recuperation. I got both in, of all places, the Armenian Patriarchate just inside the Jaffa Gate (another long story). When I was fit enough to walk, I spent some time investigating the Old City before crossing into Israel by way of the Mandelbaum Gate.

Jordanian Jerusalem was not a pretty sight. With my own eyes I saw the near-total destruction and desecration of the Jewish Quarter, where almost all of the synagogues, including the Hurva, had been demolished and defiled. One day, I embarked on a quest to find the Western Wall, a quixotic task for me because the decaying Mughrabi Quarter made access to the Wall difficult. As the day wore on, an urgent call of nature brought me to a public facility. Upon entering the stinking place, I was in such distress that all I could think of was blessed relief, which lasted until to my horror I realized I was pissing on a Jewish gravestone, doubtless looted from the Mount of Olives. These were Jordanians at work, obliterating or pissing on every remnant of Jewish life in Al Quds. It was at that moment, as I turned to urinate on the floor, that I realized the grotesque religious dimension of the conflict between Israel and its Arab (and now Iranian) neighbors. Jordanians did not just try to blot out Israel, but Judaism, too.

It is not absurd to be cautious about the outcome of quick, free, and fair elections.

Fast-forward to June 2010. I am standing with a group of academic fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ program on Israeli counterterrorism, in the yard of a maximum-security prison in Israel, just a few feet from a Hamas handler in one of the more horrific suicide bombings of the Second Intifada. After comparing himself to a Minuteman of the American Revolution, he expressed no regret at the loss of civilian life, including many children who, after all, just grow up to be occupiers. When asked if there could ever be peace, he was clear and direct: No. Perhaps a hudna (truce), but even if that lasted for ten years it would be followed by more war. There can never be peace, he said, because the land occupied by the Jews is not the West Bank, but the whole of Palestine, part of the sacred soil of Islam.

That is what is new about today’s Islamist politics. The hard case in the prison yard had surely read with care the Hamas Covenant, which has not been changed since Hamas came to power in Gaza. In that document we are told that the Jews control the world, as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion prove, and that the Jews’ puppets include the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, and the Masons. The Covenant is clear about Hamas’s political timeline: Despite delays caused by the Arab lackeys of Zionism, “the Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] aspires to the realization of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say ‘Oh Moslems. Oh Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.’” A grim Israeli joke has it that when Hamas terrorists observe the planted forests of Israel, they take heart that the Jews themselves plan ahead for their terrible cosmic fate.

The three examples of terrorists-turned-democrats all have the same thing in common.

Some fundamentalist Christians believe that the end of days will be heralded by the willing conversion of the Jews (hence the fundamentalists’ fascination with Israel). Hamas believes that the end will be heralded by Jewish death. Which is why the ascent of Hamas in Gaza is a catastrophe for Palestinian national aspirations (aka the “two-state solution”). As the Hamas killer in the jail yard and the Hamas Covenant make clear, eliminating the state of Israel is part of Allah’s divine plan for the Muslim world. For Hamas to accept a Jewish state on Muslim land (“any land the Muslims have conquered by force”) would in its mind be apostasy, an offence worthy of death at the hands of any pious Muslim. Says the Covenant: “The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day.” What is the Hamas slogan? As described in Article Eight of the Covenant: “Allah is its target, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is the path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.” The Jordanians eventually came to their senses. But the Muslim conquest of the Middle East and the cosmic end of days frame the Hamas mind, and so it is reasonable to have doubts about pragmatism fixing that mind on the present.

It is always smart to keep one’s mind open, especially in matters of politics, where anything can happen (such as Egypt coming apart at the seams) and the impossible becomes reality. Still, and to repeat a point, it is important also to take seriously what people say they believe, which is a hard thing for most rationalists and realists I know to do. George Orwell, in his brilliant March 1940 review of the unexpurgated English translation of Mein Kampf, was struck by how much Hitler had stuck to his plan outlined in the infamous screed, despite the “temporary maneuvers of power politics … The plan laid down in Mein Kampf was to smash Russia first, with the implied intention of smashing England afterwards. Now, as it has turned out, England has got to be dealt with first, because Russia was the more easily bribed of the two. But Russia’s turn will come when England is out of the picture—that, no doubt, is how Hitler sees it. Whether it will turn out that way is of course a different question.”

Israel is home to the most technology startups on the NASDAQ after the United States.

Anyone who favors “opening” to the Hamas political wing, or who is not worried about the Brotherhood in Egypt, would do well to keep Orwell’s words in mind, and it will help to read Hamas’s repulsive and murderous founding document. It reflects in simple terms the spirit of Sayyid Qutb, intellectual pillar of the Brotherhood. Qutb was moved by an all-consuming revulsion at the moral corruption of Western modernity, which as such is the mortal enemy of Islam. Convinced too that the Jews have been the conniving and conspiratorial enemies of Islam since the get-go in Medina, Israel (nothing if not a marvel of Western modernity) is condemned on both accounts.

Now, the Brotherhood might not be the big player in the Egyptian drama, or political engagement might lead it to moderation. But the Israelis have good reason to be concerned about an Islamist influence in Egypt, because the strategic situation in the area has changed in an ominous direction. Planners in the Israeli military have always considered Israel in an endless boxing match with its enemies, the object being to win the current round and fend off and prepare for the next, inevitable one for as long as possible. But in the rounds to come Israel will have to contend with new military tactics that frighteningly reflect Qutb’s view of Israel and the West. As articulated by Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah (in some important matters the Shi’a and Sunni versions of Islamism are on the same page), the new tactics are called “hybrid warfare.” Hybrid warfare, said Nasrallah, combines high tech with guerilla-style insurgent military tactics, and aims to exploit the supposed moral weakness of the worst of modern powers, Israel. Israelis want to live and dance all night and will trade a thousand jailed jihadis for one of their own. (As things look now, my Hamas interlocutor could wind up free as a bird. Many of the Israeli Defense Force, or IDF, people I spoke to do not like this one bit; but they cannot buck Israeli public opinion.) Jihadis of all stripes long for death, so defeat is always a “victory,” and will hold out forever in the face of attrition: no “exit strategies” for them.

The aim is not to defeat Israel’s armed forces in set battle, but to cripple and then kill its social fabric, which is vulnerable because of its supposed lack of moral spine. Now that the suicide bomb has been pretty much foiled, the accurate ballistic and cruise missile is the weapon of choice, as Israel learned in 2006 when one of its naval ships, the Sa’ar 3-Class corvette Hanit, was hit by an Iranian-made C701 anti-ship missile.

What was once a corrupt and sclerotic socialist economy has become a marvel of entrepreneurial free enterprise.

The present situation in Israel is a mix of contradictions. The penultimate time I was in Israel, in January 2002 during the Second Intifada, my wife and I dined at Eucalyptus in Jerusalem and were the only two people in the place for the entire evening. This past summer, the streets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were mobbed and the restaurants packed until the wee hours of the morning. In 2002, on the way to visit family in Kibbutz Hazorea, we passed by the small village of Yoqne’am not far away. It was then pretty much a dot on the map, located at a junction on Route 70 that runs north to Haifa. By last June, Yoqne’am had become a massive high-tech industrial park, with all the usual names: Intel, Medtronic, and on and on.

On the way into Tel Aviv, one drives for miles past huge new buildings housing high-tech industries, including Microsoft’s Strategic Global Development Center. Israel is home to the most technology startups on the NASDAQ after the United States. It has a booming pharmaceutical industry and some of the best medical care and universities in the world. The highway system, in 2002 still marginally dangerous, looks like Los Angeles today, with a sleek and fully automated private highway (number six) running from north to southeast of traffic-snarled Tel Aviv. The new architecture of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is stunning, resplendent in Jerusalem stone and brilliant design. What was once a corrupt and sclerotic socialist economy has become a marvel of entrepreneurial free enterprise. All this is recounted in Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s Start Up Nation, but one has to see it to appreciate the magnitude of the accomplishment.

The sine qua non for this economic miracle is the domestic security brought by the border fence (a marvel of high-tech engineering), counterterrorism intelligence and operations, and the deterrent effects of the military operations against Hezbollah in 2006 and against Gaza in 2008. As Lee Smith noted last year, Nasrallah’s declaration of divine victory comes from a man “bunkered for the rest of his life.” And there is another relevant fact not often mentioned: robust growth rates and improved governance and security in the West Bank. There are the inevitable bumps in the road in this slow and unglamorous process, but the Palestinians on the other side of the fence are not blind to the economic marvel in Israel and want one of their own.

An ominous feature of the new situation is the revision of military doctrine compelled by Islamist hybrid war.

On the other hand, Israel’s strategic situation is perilous indeed, surrounded as it is by hostile practitioners of hybrid warfare. At present, Israeli defense planners estimate that there are 13,000 warheads (not to mention the tens of thousands of crude rockets that can rain on the villages of the Israeli north and south) arrayed against most of Israel’s population, industries, military installations, and universities. About 1,500 of these missiles can hit the Tel Aviv metropolitan area (the Iranian Ashura/Sejil could hit Israel fired from the Pakistan border). This situation will only get worse, since a score or more of countries are now flogging sophisticated missiles, and technological progress churns out ever-more accurate and heavy missiles and payloads. And, according to the Nasrallah doctrine, missile sites nestle among civilians in order to exploit the Israeli concern for collateral damage. Jihadis ignore the international laws of war, while Israelis hamstring themselves by a judiciary for whom everything, including minute battlefield and interrogation tactics, is “justiciable.” (The United States is plagued by one lawyer for every 265 people. In Israel, it is one to 165!)

The hybrid warfare threat has forced a major rethinking of Israel’s strategic posture based, controversially, on a rapid push for multi-range anti-missile technology (such as the Iron Dome, for which the United States agreed to provide $205 million, the David’s Sling, and the Arrow 3), advanced early warning systems, and the enlargement of its fleet of Dolphin-class, missile-launching submarines. An ominous feature of the new situation is the revision of military doctrine compelled by Islamist hybrid war: its missile component requires that Israeli defenses focus first on preserving the operational capacity of the IDF, second on key infrastructure installations, and last on reducing civilian casualties. Since no anti-missile system can destroy every incoming weapon, if deterrence fails Israeli cities will suffer. And of course the Iranian bomb looms as the darkest cloud on the horizon.

A solution to the Palestinian problem will not cause Iran’s disappearance, as presently constituted, or Hezbollah, now close to ruling in Lebanon. Nor will it prevent Turkey from emerging as a more independent regional power. Nor will it prevent waning American influence in the Middle East as we exit from Iraq. But it will be important for securing and thus sustaining the Israeli economic miracle. And it will be morally important for Israel to have a lasting peace with a state inhabited by those who were displaced during the chaos of its own birth. But it is hard to imagine a Palestinian state so long as Gaza suffers in the brutal grip of Hamas.

Were the Brotherhood to come out on top in an Egyptian revolution, Israel’s strategic situation would be as dangerous as it was in 1973. Indeed, more dangerous: with a hostile Egypt to its west, and having diverted military resources to missile defense against the hybrid war threat to its north, east, and south, and with its infrastructure and population centers targeted by accurate missiles, one hates to think what might happen should an inevitable crisis spin out of control. So let’s hope that the Brotherhood is as feeble as some think, or let’s hope that politics moderates it, and let’s hope that Egypt can follow the lead of Iraq and stumble toward some modicum of real democracy. The Brotherhood’s weakness is one thing; what it would do if it were strong is quite another, and nobody should have illusions about the matter. If push should come to shove and an unchanged Brotherhood seems poised to prevail, anyone who cares for the Egyptians, the Israelis, and the Palestinians should urge the United States to exert its leverage with the Egyptian military. To what end? To crush the Brotherhood.

Jerry Weinberger is professor of political science at Michigan State University and an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute. His latest book is Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought.

FURTHER READING: Richard Williamson considers “Freedom’s March: Egypt at the Tipping Point” and Charlie Szrom wonders “Have Arabs Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Iranian Bomb?” AEI’s Michael Rubin says “The U.S. Should Not Fear Egypt Regime Change,” while Danielle Pletka explains “How Should the U.S. Respond to the Protests in the Middle East?”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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