To Save Egypt from Civil War, Don’t Listen to David Brooks!

by Rich Rubenstein on July 11, 2013 · 0 comments

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Richard E. Rubenstein

To avoid a rapid slide into civil war, what Egypt desperately needs now is serious conflict resolution. It needs facilitated dialogues on the creation of a new Egyptian Constitution by all interested parties, with economic and religious issues, as well as political processes and institutions, up for discussion. But New York Times columnist David Brooks is too busy glorying in the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood to think about the Egyptian people’s basic needs.

The telegenic Mr. Brooks has long enjoyed a reputation for being a calm, reasonable, humane conservative. Cracks in this façade have appeared before, but never with the ugly clarity of his recent celebration of the Egyptian Army’s military coup and his denunciation of its victims.

Using a hopped-up rhetoric that smacks of cultural and religious bigotry, Brooks declares that “radical Islamists” like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party are “incapable of running a modern government” (NYT, 7/6/13). According to him, leaders like Mohamed Morsi and Recep Erdogan are anti-democratic fanatics with “a strange fascination with a culture of death,” people incapable, because of their religious beliefs, of an objective appreciation of facts, and bunglers by nature, since “incompetence is built into the intellectual DNA of radical Islam.” And, oh yes, it’s a good thing to remove them from power even when democratically elected, since they are “the main threat to global peace.”

One’s first reaction to this is to gasp. What? Are Morsi and Erdogan radical Islamists? Clearly not! In Egypt, the militants belong to al-Nour, a large Salafist party that detests Morsi for his moderation and that supported the military coup. (Following the killing of more than 50 protestors by army troops on July 7, the party withdrew from the provisional government.) In Turkey, Erdogan has suppressed Muslim extremists and collaborated with the U.S. in its use of Predator drones against al-Qaeda in Iraq. “If a Muslim becomes a terrorist,” he famously declared, “it means that he or she has serious problems. He or she has nothing to do with Islam.”

Is incompetence built into his “intellectual DNA” as well as Morsi’s? Better take a look at Turkey’s record in economic growth, education, health care, infrastructure development, and international trade since Erdogan came to power eleven years ago. At least in these respects, the USA could use a dose of Turkish DNA!

Of course, this does not mean that either leader is an avatar of democracy, a friend of the workers, or a reliable defender of minority rights. Even if they are not radical Islamists, men like Morsi and Erdogan are depressingly authoritarian, socially conservative misleaders who may well deserve to be put out of office by their constituents. Yet – here is where David Brooks’ critique goes entirely off the rails – they and their religious beliefs are not the problem! The problem is the bitter social divisions in their nations and the region as a whole that have set employed and unemployed, workers and owners, urbanites and country folk, young people and old, local and foreign companies, Muslims and non-Muslims, orthodox believers and modernists, soldiers and civilians at each other’s throats.

Islamism is a symptom of this crisis, not its cause. Its causes include gross economic inefficiency, uneven development, and inequality; a culture of military elitism and political corruption; and a history of foreign domination and political meddling. Egyptians need a process, constitutional in the broadest sense, which will permit them to identify these problems and discuss in depth what sort of institutions and practices are most likely to permit their amelioration.

And, by the way, they need to be left alone to make these decisions, as the fledgling United States was left alone to decide, first, to adopt Articles of Confederation, and then, to fashion and ratify a Federal Constitution.

One thing and one thing only can justify the Egyptian military coup: initiation of a genuine constitutional dialogue with no parties excluded or issues tabooed. The Army, which has its own interests to advocate, should participate in this process as a party – not act as the facilitator. The parties themselves can choose a panel of independent facilitators from one of the numerous rosters now available, making sure to select people they can trust to avoid manipulating the process in the interests of any internal group or outside power.

Any number of experienced and independent conflict resolvers would be ready to fly to Cairo at a moment’s notice to help their Egyptian brethren avoid a civil war. Commanding General Sisi should act now to convene all the parties and present them with a full list of qualified facilitators. There is very little time left to avoid a struggle that will make the gunning down of 51 protestors look like a day in the park.

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