July 31, 2014

Middle East Media Sampler for January 11, 2012


1) Thomas Friedman reassures himself that Islamists are moderate

Thomas Friedman continues his tour of Egypt and writes about it in Political Islam without Oil. This is a variation on the typical "Islamists will moderate when they achieve power" theme. This is more like "Egypt's Islamists will have to moderate when they achieve power because they won't be able to buy off the population with oil wealth."

Friedman writes:

Islamist movements have long dominated Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both the ayatollahs in Iran and the Wahhabi Salafists in Saudi Arabia, though, were able to have their ideology and the fruits of modernity, too, because they had vast oil wealth to buy off any contradictions. Saudi Arabia could underutilize its women and impose strict religious mores on its society, banks and schools. Iran’s clerics could snub the world, pursue nuclearization and impose heavy political and religious restrictions. And both could still offer their people improved living standards, because they had oil.

Egypt’s Islamist parties will not have that luxury. They will have to open up to the world, and they seem to be realizing that. Egypt is a net importer of oil. It also imports 40 percent of its food. And tourism constitutes one-tenth of its gross domestic product. With unemployment rampant and the Egyptian pound eroding, Egypt will probably need assistance from the International Monetary Fund, a major injection of foreign investment and a big upgrade in modern education to provide jobs for all those youths who organized last year’s rebellion. Egypt needs to be integrated with the world.

So he spends the rest of his column trying to convince us (and maybe trying to convince himself) that the Islamists understand what he understands and will rule Egypt wisely and openly.

Essam el-Erian, the vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party, told me: “We hope that we can pull the Salafists — not that they pull us — and that both of us will be pulled by the people’s needs.” He made very clear that while both Freedom and Justice and Al Nour are Islamist parties, they are very different, and they may not join hands in power: “As a political group, they are newcomers, and I hope all can wait to discover the difference between Al Nour and Freedom and Justice.”

This, of course, is what Friedman wants to hear. But Erian is practiced enough in dealing with the West to say exactly what reporters and columnists want to hear. (Or he's nebulous enough to let them construe what he says into what they want to hear.)

Next on the agenda is Israel.

On the peace treaty with Israel, Erian said: “This is the commitment of the state — not any group or party — and we have said we are respecting the commitments of the Egyptian state from the past.” Ultimately, he added, relations with Israel will be determined by how it treats the Palestinians.

In other words, ceding the Sinai and 30 plus years of cold peace isn't enough. Israel must show that it deserves peace with Egypt. This is very much in line with Friedman's thinking. (Of course abrogating the treaty with Israel will deprive Egypt of much needed foreign aid, so that likely won't happen entirely.)

Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for Al Nour, insisted that his party would move cautiously. “We are the guardians of Shariah,” he told me, referring to Islamic law, “and we want people to be with us on the same principles, but we have an open door to all the intellectuals in all fields.” He said his party’s economic model was Brazil. “We don’t like the theocratic model,” he added. “I can promise you that we will not be another dictatorship, and the Egyptian people will not give us a chance to be another dictatorship.”

Friedman is comforted by all this. But Brazil has significant oil reserves. Without oil wealth how will Egypt emulate Brazil? Perhaps Bakkar, knowing of Friedman's infatuation with globalization, chose to throw out the name of a random country in order to impress him.

In November, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an independent Salafist cleric and presidential candidate, was asked by an interviewer how, as president, he would react to a woman wearing a bikini on the beach? “She would be arrested,” he said.

The Al Nour Party quickly said he was not speaking for it. Agence France-Presse quoted another spokesman for Al Nour, Muhammad Nour, as also dismissing fears raised in the news media that the Salafists might ban alcohol, a staple of Egypt’s tourist hotels. “Maybe 20,000 out of 80 million Egyptians drink alcohol,” he said. “Forty million don’t have sanitary water. Do you think that, in Parliament, I’ll busy myself with people who don’t have water, or people who get drunk?”

But in December another Salafist cleric declared that "[a]lcohol, bikinis and mixed bathing would be banned," for tourists. Was his statement also disavowed? (Not that I found.)

None of Friedman's questions addressed the increasingly desperate situation for Egypt's Copts.

If Ibrahim is still pondering whether she should stay or leave, others have already made up their mind. Thousands of Christians have reportedly fled the country since the revolution, while others are in the process of leaving.

Manal Tamry, a young mother of six, has already finalised her papers and is ready to leave for the US in a few months. Like many Egyptians, she is attracted to the bright lights of the West. She talks about how in the US the streets are paved, the hospitals are clean and life is easy. However, this is not the main reason she is leaving.

“I am just scared; Egypt is not safe for us anymore. You hear stories of young Christian girls being kidnapped all the time, and I have daughters,” says Tamry, while standing in a hushed group at her Shubra church.

Was it because he knew there were no good answers? Or was he just not curious?

Friedman concludes:

What to make of all this? Egyptian Islamists have some big decisions. It has been easy to maintain a high degree of ideological purity all these years they’ve been out of power. But their sudden rise to the top of Egyptian politics coincides with the free fall of Egypt’s economy. And as soon as Parliament is seated on Jan. 23, Egypt’s Islamists will have the biggest responsibility for fixing that economy — without oil. (A similar drama is playing out in Tunisia.)

They don’t want to blow this chance to lead, yet they want to be true to their Islamic roots, yet they know their supporters elected them to deliver clean government, education and jobs, not mosques. It will be fascinating to watch them deal with these tugs and pulls. Where they come out will have a huge impact on the future of political Islam in this region.

Friedman is sticking by his view that governing will moderate Islamists. He bolsters his belief in this column by accepting superficial answers and avoiding tough questions. I'm sure he is reassured.

2) The moderate and not so moderate Tunisian Islamists

AP reports Tunisia’s Islamist party slams anti-Semitic chants disquieting local Jews:

Rachid Ghannouchi reiterated the policy of his Ennahda party, which heads the country’s new government, that Tunisia’s Jews are “full citizens with equal rights and duties.”

“Ennahda condemns these slogans which do not represent Islam’s spirit or teachings, and considers those who raised them as a marginal group,” Ghannouchi said in a statement.

Videos circulated online showed crowd members greeting Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Gaza government, at the airport in Tunis on Thursday chanting “Kill the Jews” and “Crush the Jews.” The chants came from Salafists, ultraconservative Muslims who have been making their presence felt in Tunisia recently.

Of course if Ennahda is so moderate, why was it hosting Hamas, as the AP article later points out:

For his part, Haniyeh told The Associated Press on Sunday night that he disagrees with the anti-Semitic slogans. “We are not against the Jews because they are Jews. Our problem is with those occupying the land of Palestine,” he said. “There are Jews all over the world, but Hamas does not target them.”

Despite the comments, Hamas’ founding charter is filled with anti-Semitic references and conspiracy theories about the Jews.

The charter does give lie to Haniyeh's claim.

However Ghannouchi has been having a conflict with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy over statements he made, as MEMRI recounts.

Ghannouchi's statements, in particular his prediction regarding revolutions in the monarchies, sparked criticism in the Arab media, especially in the Saudi press. Ghannouchi, for his part, defended himself in several media interviews. He said that his statements at the seminar had not been for publication, and furthermore, that the particular statements attributed to him in the press had been invented by the Washington Institute which, he said, is known for its "Zionist" bias. He told the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "I attended the seminar, and we agreed that [my] remarks there would not be published. When [the institute] publicized them, we protested about it, and they apologized. But they distorted the content [of my statements] in order to harm our international relations." He added: "We will consult with lawyers on this matter. We generally sue papers that harm us, invent things, and attribute to us statements we never made. Dozens such [papers] were charged [with slander] and forced to pay damages… Those journalists [who published the remarks] should have confirmed them instead of reporting them [directly] from Zionist sources that are known to be biased, especially when it comes to [publications] that harm inter-Arab and inter-Muslim relations. The Zionists do not like it when inter-Muslim relations are good."

Ghannouchi denied predicting a revolution in Saudi Arabia next year, saying: "We want only good things for the [Saudi] kingdom, and our policy rejects interfering in the affairs of other countries." [1] On another occasion, he told the daily: "We aspire to good relations with all the countries of the region, especially with the Gulf, which is the second circle of our Arab relations after the Arab Maghreb. That is why the [political] platform of the Al-Nahda party specifies that we advocate removing visa requirements for Gulf [citizens] visiting our region. Saudi Arabia is the chief of the Gulf countries, and a gateway for anyone desiring good relations with the Gulf. We want only good things for the kingdom. After all, it is the direction to which [we] Muslims pray."[2]

Ghannouchi said that his statements at the seminar were posted on his Facebook page.[3] However, a search of the page yielded no results.

In defending himself against charges that he incited against the Saudi regime or left open the possibility of ties with Israel, Ghannouchi charged the Washington Institute of being "Zionist." That epithet doesn't exactly bolster his reputation as a moderate.

About Daniel Goldstein

Daniel Goldstein is a media critic and recovering blogger. He has been critiquing media bias against Israel since his first letter to the editor in 1987.