Middle East | News

In Egypt, with liberals

(Jewish Ideas Daily) — America’s relations with the Arab world have been strained for decades, but the Arab world is not all of a piece. The pre-eminent enemies of Israel and the West, Syria and Iran, are totalitarian. Egypt, since the 1970 death of the nationalist hero-tyrant Gamal Abdel Nasser, has been different. When Anwar Sadat succeeded Nasser, Cairo’s government de-radicalized itself to a degree, much as China’s did after the death of Mao. Throughout the post-Nasser period, again like the Chinese, the Egyptian establishment has not only tolerated but promoted a certain ideological diversity.

Among the beneficiaries of this tolerance is Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. This government-sponsored think tank has managed, incredibly, to remain somewhat independent of the state. When I asked why, Soltan explained, “Mubarak was corrupt and authoritarian, but he was not Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad or Moammar Gadhafi.”

Still, why pay scholars who spend every day publishing essays that regularly cut against the grain of government policy? His center, Soltan told me, was established in 1968 “after we lost the war with Israel, to create a place where we could analyze our reasons for failure.”  He continued, “We can conduct our research and publish it, but we can’t mobilize activists. We are allowed to say what we want as long as we don’t oversay it or act on it.”

Soltan’s political views generally line up with those of other Egyptian liberals. He distrusts the Muslim Brotherhood. He doesn’t much care for Israel but has no interest in terminating the peace treaty. As for the activists in Tahrir Square, he finds them immature. In short: a political liberal with the temperament of a conservative.

More outspoken than Soltan is his colleague Hala Mustafa, a borderline revolutionary who also works at the Al-Ahram Center and edits her own magazine, Democracy. Unlike Soltan, she — among a small minority of Egyptian liberals — wants normal relations with Israel.

Not surprisingly, Mustafa has gotten into trouble. The regime mounted a fierce public campaign against her for meeting in her office with the Israeli ambassador. This was actually not so unusual — Israelis visit the Al-Ahram Center on a fairly regular basis — but the government seized the opportunity to attack her, no doubt to intimidate her. It was just “an excuse to put pressure on me,” she said. She was certain that her office was bugged.

Like many Egyptian liberals, Mustafa believes that the military regime and the Muslim Brotherhood will work together. “The regime and the Islamists hate liberalism and Westernization,” she said. In her view, this is part of the reason why Israel must be demonized: “Not because it’s Jewish, but because it’s Western and liberal.”

Mustafa actually tried to resign; the government wouldn’t let her. Perhaps they thought they could keep a better eye on her that way, but they could have put her in jail. Somewhere in the back of the government’s collective mind was the conviction that the disastrous radical days of pre-1967 Nasserism must not be repeated.

Another kind of Egyptian liberal is Ezzedine Choukri Fishere. A novelist and professor of political science, he was appointed, after Mubarak’s ouster, as secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Culture.

“If North Korea and the former Soviet Union are a 10 on the scale of social control,” he said, “Egypt under Mubarak was probably a 6.

“I published my first novel in 1995. It was very critical of the government. I wondered if I should write under my own name. But I went ahead and nothing happened. No one in the government reads,” he laughed.

Fishere was in the Foreign Service at the time working at Egypt’s embassy in Tel Aviv, and his view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is sophisticated. “I saw the complexity of the relationship,” he said, “and complexity teaches you things.”

Not that Fishere is pro-Israel. “Egypt has to be frank with the Israelis and the Americans,” he explained, “and say we can no longer help in keeping the Palestinians where they are.”  Cairo had to make its policies more open; that is, “Egypt should be more like Turkey than like Iran.”

Soltan, Mustafa and Fishere say Egyptian culture is slowly becoming a bit more pluralistic, if not more democratic, and that most of the leadership does not aim to impose a one-party state. They’re probably right. Egypt does feel more pluralistic today than it did just a few years ago. At the same time, the country is weighed down by the despotic habits of thousands of years.

Unsurprisingly, Fishere recently departed the government to return to teaching and writing. He was not, however, purged. If ever the likes of him are purged, we’ll know Egypt has re-crossed a dangerous threshold and is becoming more like Iran than like Turkey.

Michael J. Totten (www.MichaelTotten.com.) is a contributing editor at City Journal and author of “In the Wake of the Surge” and “The Road to Fatima Gate.” This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.