Hussein Ibish

Unreadable Egypt

Any time Robert Gibbs, the spokesman for President Barack Obama, and Mahmoud Zahhar, a key spokesman for Hamas, end up saying almost exactly the same thing about a situation, you have proof positive that that situation is virtually unreadable.
Last weekend, Gibbs and Zahhar seemed to echo each other on the developments in Egypt – that it was up to the Egyptians to decide about their own future; or we decline to comment on whether President Hosni Mubarak should stay in office or go, and so on. Both the United States and Hamas, after all, will have to deal with the outcome of the Egyptian uprising, no matter who ends up in power in Cairo; and both have a very limited ability to influence the outcome.
Situations as unstable as this tend to bring out the very worst in political commentary. Under such volatile circumstances, commentators should be extremely careful, even though what most readers, editors and producers are looking for is exactly what commentary should avoid: what purports to be detailed political analysis of an unclear, unstable political reality, or, worse, vapid and indefensible prognostications.
One obvious pitfall to be avoided under such circumstances, both as a writer and as a reader, is a simple recitation of the basic facts already established through reportage. The lightest dusting of opinion on a large pile of virtually universal perception, as in this commentary by the British journalist Robert Fisk, isn’t harmful. But it also isn’t worth reading or writing either.
The situation in Egypt is simply too opaque, at least at the time of writing this article, for anything so glib as predictions, except maybe in the context of Twitter’s 140 character-imposed brevity. Not only is the outcome uncertain, even the political identity of the players is undetermined because the uprising seems to have been so spontaneous, without leadership or a clear ideology. “The People” have shown themselves to be a political force of enormous power, but, absent a political leadership, they are not necessarily political actors as such. In other words, all of the popular momentum ultimately needs to be harnessed in a particular direction before one can clearly discern what political agendas are actually facing down Mubarak and his regime.
The largest and most well-organized opposition party is obviously the Muslim Brotherhood. However, like all other organized or semi-organized political opposition groups in Egypt, it has been playing catch-up with the events as they unfold. There is no basis yet on which to judge the extent to which the Brotherhood might be able to seize the momentum in the coming days, or simply try to be a (not necessarily dominant) presence in an alternative regime or even a reformed system.
That is why analyses that proclaim the Brotherhood to be an intolerable menace, foreclosing any thought of revolt or regime change, as suggested by this Jerusalem Post editorial, are so unhelpful. But they’re not any better than commentaries that dismiss the dangers of an Islamist takeover, like that of Chris Harnisch, a staffer for the former vice president, Dick Cheney. Or, conversely, those suggesting that such a takeover may be inevitable, like the articles of John Bradley, author of “Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution”, or of George Washington University political scientist Marc Lynch.
And then, of course, there are those who merely want to put their own spin on the situation, and play events in Egypt up not as a new development on its own terms, but as a confirmation of their own pre-existing agenda. For example, Republican pollster Dick Morris suggests that it’s all Obama’s fault, very obviously with an eye to the next election, when asking: “Who lost Egypt?” This approach will become a staple of American political discourse in the coming months and years.
Neoconservative columnist John Podhoretz takes what is happening in Egypt as an opportunity to resurrect the straw man that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not necessarily be a panacea to all the ills of the Middle East. Obviously, nobody sensible ever says that, but it probably sounds reassuring to supporters of the Israeli occupation.
A former George W. Bush administration official, Elliott Abrams, quite naturally found the uprising in Egypt to be an opportune moment to point out that the rhetoric (though not the policies) of the Bush administration (in which he played a key role) about a “freedom agenda” in the Middle East looks much better today than it did. This stands in contrast to the Obama administration’s emphasis on stability. Touché!
These last three examples are all deliberately chosen from the right of the American political spectrum, presently in opposition to the administration and gunning for Obama in the next presidential election. All of these arguments are examples of predictable sparring in which political adversaries try to spin events to their own purposes. However, like commentaries that are summaries of what is already known or rushes to judgment on as yet obviously undecidable questions, what they have to offer a sensible reader is very much open to doubt.
There are times when commentary needs to fall silent for a moment and let events sort themselves out, although there are always sensible things that can be said that don’t go very far in any direction. But it is also important to take the opportunity to look inward and take note of what exactly is, and more importantly isn’t, worth reading and writing about such a fascinating, fluid situation as the one playing out in Egypt today.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.ibishblog.com.


    Interesting to watch a new US position that may breathe new hope for democracy in the region. No doubt Obama learned from his mistakes by not supporting the Green Revolution and accepting a brutal suppression of Tehran Spring. He’s now skillfully applying the Carter Doctrine (human rights/democracy) to foreign policy and if he can combine it with a 10-year renewable energy plan for US energy independence, US would care less about the Middle East and its oil which would have significant impact on regional politics. With the demise of authoritarian regimes in Arab states, the balance of power will inevitably shift to Islamists, though like Hizbollah, may prefer a secular figure to head the government so not to be deprived of US and Western aids, and not being blames for mismanaging the economy that would no doubt suffer considerably under their hands. But US matured position is giving a real hope to democratic forces in Egypt to unite and rescue the country from Iranian path.

    February 2, 2011

  • Georges Butros Estaphan

    Could be good - may be soon we can havve a new parallell Arab League - only the new one open only to those with secret ballot elections and free parties: Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq and Egypt. Anyone else care to join?:

    February 1, 2011