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Crown of sorrow

By Philip Whitfield CAIRO: Ring out the old, ring in the new… ring out the false, ring in the true — Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850), one of the most beloved poets with verses such as knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers. What’s so upsetting at the beginning of a year that will shape the Middle East’s future …


By Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Ring out the old, ring in the new… ring out the false, ring in the true — Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850), one of the most beloved poets with verses such as knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.

What’s so upsetting at the beginning of a year that will shape the Middle East’s future is the plethora of lies framing the arguments. In the spirit of the season, let’s concentrate on the truths.

The intention of Egypt’s revolution has been subjugated. Freedom is further away than it was a year ago. To do the military’s bidding one group of compliant politicians is being replaced by another.

The Canute-like junta follows the example of the legendary Dane who ruled England in the 10th Century. Despite his entreaties the tide came in, lapping over his throne on the seashore. Egypt’s rulers believe they can staunch the flow of democratic progress.

A year ago the consensus was Islamists would win 15 percent or less of the vote. Nobody forecast the Salafis winning anything. Now both are on the crest of a wave with almost 70 percent tied up. The Muslim Brotherhood will finish off its electoral battle with the Salafis in the third round of the elections. Then it will be all-out verbal warfare.

Taking advantage of opportunities to air its opinions are seized enthusiastically. Dr. Rashad Bayoumi, the Brotherhood’s deputy leader says in his most recent interview: Whatever the circumstances, we do not recognize Israel.

If so 2012 is the beginning of isolationism and the end of America’s serious interest in Egypt. Wave bye-bye to the Qualified Industrial Zones hurriedly introduced to save Egypt’s textile industry and a million jobs.

Congress has no interest in helping a country that won’t cooperate with Israel, even with a pittance of their investment. Egypt’s new era will see increased joblessness and poverty, fruitless education, graft and corruption.

The youth brain drain will continue. If you’re not listened to, why stick around? What’s the point of earning an MBA and licking stamps for a living?

The military will find it is not receiving replacement parts for tanks. Spares for weapons will not come down the regular supply chain. The US Congress has a million ways to skin a cat it doesn’t choose to succor. The EU is more interested in bolstering Hungary and Estonia than hand wrestling Egypt.

The United States and Europe will disengage gradually with Egypt, which will seek deeper friendships with Russia and China. Anyone who was around while the Russians were here in the 60s knows what that means: venal governance and shoddy goods. Anyone who’s dealt with Chinese businessmen knows to carry a long spoon with which to sup.

A sign of the times. Al Ahram gives the Muslim Brotherhood space to air its ideas fulsomely nowadays. The questioner focuses on the Brothers’ intentions. The Brothers’ spokesperson says: Our goal is to apply Islamic Law. The rest of the interview is non-committal pabulum.

Aristotle said it wasn’t enough to win a war, it was more important to organize the peace. After America’s civil war Abraham Lincoln picked up the sentiment, urging people to think anew and act anew, to disenthrall themselves to save their country.

Dogma was inadequate, he said. People must rise to the occasion.

Disturbing is the Muslim Brotherhood’s open invitation to someone that agrees with their vision for Egypt to run for the presidency. They’re not going to put anyone up for the post, knowing full well the military won’t let the country be governed by an Islamist president, cabinet and parliament.

If what they’re saying is read carefully, they condone extreme punishments for adultery and theft and restrict drinking alcohol. But they’re not going to take responsibility. It’s up to Al Azhar, their spokesman says. Their scholars are the ones versed in the texts and laws. The politicians who fall back on the Quran to answer almost every question say they’ll pass the buck to others to interpret it.

At an election rally in New Valley, west of Cairo the other day one of the Brotherhood’s leaders was unambiguous on three points: We’ll prohibit alcohol, Sobhi Saleh said. Tourism does not mean nudity and drunkenness. We don’t need that. Sharia? It was planned since 1928.

A year ago nobody believed the Muslim Brotherhood had a ghost of a chance of running Egypt, precisely because of these views. Faced with a real threat from the Salafis the Brotherhood has to repeat its Islamist credentials over and over.

Recall that the Muslim Brotherhood were Johnny-come-latelies at Tahrir Square. While the young Brothers broke ranks to join in, their elders stirred only after the winds of change swelled into a Khamsim hurricane.

Further intolerance comes from another unlikely source. The Islamic Research Center, which is headed by Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, called on the government to take Al Karma Christian television station off the air, allegedly for offending Muslims.

So here’s another indication of the Brothers’ vision for Egypt: restricting freedom of speech when it’s directed against them. Oscar Wild said morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.

What we’re hearing could be brushed aside as hotheaded electioneering. Maybe. But it is disturbing how prevalent and coordinated it has become after the Islamists triumph in the first round of elections.

Be sure, if the Salafis hadn’t gained such a significant haul of seats in the next parliament, the world would have regarded the Muslim Brotherhood as extremists. The Brothers are using the cover the Salafis give them to lay down markers for legislative action.

Another truth is the cost of the chaos. Countries don’t go bankrupt. Lenders shun the ones that can’t pay their debts. The devaluation will be devastating. Luxury goods will disappear. Good wheat for flour will be hard to pay for.

The Egyptian generals have misread the mood. In 2012 the three most influential politicians in the world, Obama, Merkel and Sarkozy are up for reelection. Obama appears to have the best chance of the three.

All three face the ire of voters shortchanged by bankers. All three face angry demonstrators who believe their basic rights are being trampled.

The pictures from Tahrir Square had energized them. Not any more: 2011 opened in cheer and ended in fear.

A lie, which is half a truth, is ever the blackest of lies — Tennyson. A sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier times.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

 

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