By Philip Whitfield
CAIRO: I think people miss the real story in Egypt. People were trying to convince themselves during the revolution that Egyptians were going to turn out to be a bunch of fluffy liberals — Shadi Hamid, the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center research director appearing on FRONTLINE, American public television’s acclaimed current affairs show.
Dr. Hamid isn’t your garden-variety navel gazer. Once a senior director of research at Stanford University, he occupied an influential post in the State Department and was Dianne Feinstein’s Middle East go-to guy when she held sway in the Senate.
Hamid said: The Brotherhood takes no positions that are radical by Egyptian standards. The vast majority of Egyptians believe Sharia should play a major role in political life and law. At some point you have to respect the will of the people. They like Salafis to some extent and they like the Brotherhood to a great extent.
Dr. Hamid doesn’t have an axe to grind. He sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a center-right, nationalist organization that America has to engage in a long-overdue dialogue. Their pragmatism is about to be tested — the perennial opposition that surprised itself.
To legislate, the Brotherhood needs partners in parliament’s ideological slumgullion. If the Brotherhood had snagged a few more percentage points and the far-right Salafis a few less, the Islamists’ internecine bloodletting could have been postponed. The Salafis are setting out the parameters of the Islamic battle to come.
Don’t be shocked after a few firebrand Salafis grabbed their box of tricks, pulling a firecracker out: the virtue and vice vilifier. Egypt’s morality cops arrive clucking with coruscating clacking, clamping down on crimpers and cocktail shakers whetting desire, salivating in sanctimony,
The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice justifies its bullyboys. Commonplace in Saudi, Gaza and Taliban townships, the Mutaween dye their beards red and dress up in bright bandanas. They spy on women browsing negligees. They break up strolling couples. They arrest the unveiled. They confiscate Valentine’s Day gifts. They stone women and wield plaited lashes to flog them.
A few years ago when fire broke out in a school in Mecca, the Mutaween allegedly locked the girls in because they weren’t wearing headscarves or accompanied by male guardians. Fifteen girls died and 50 were seriously burnt.
Muslim extremists drive Americans nuts.
Larry Haas is an influential Republican, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council where Newt Gingrich is revered. Egypt may be electing one man, one vote, one time, he writes in a syndicated column. He forecasts strict Sharia Islamic law for Egypt.
It hardly matters that the Salafis distance themselves from the morality police or Al Azhar restates its claim to say what’s what in the Sunni universe. The West is giving up on serendipity.
A year ago the world rejoiced in Tahrir’s tears of joy. It seemed emblematic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief that occasionally in life there are moments of unutterable fulfillment. They can’t be explained by words. Dr. King said their meaning is articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.
If only things had remained that way. Steven Cook, Middle East analyst and fellow of the heavyweight Council on Foreign Relations says events in Egypt are unfolding in a long goodbye between the Egypt and America.
One of the most influential players is Jeff Feltman who’s been in Cairo. Feltman is regarded as one of the most-read diplomats in the State Department. People love the candor and wisdom of his dispatches. He’s awed as the straight-talker who warranted a weekly video pow-wow with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
So influential was he as ambassador to Lebanon between 2004 and 2008 that the opposition nicknamed Fuad Siniora’s government the Feltmanites. The State Department’s top man overseeing the region has been working out a modus operandi for the United States.
Yesterday Feltman’s boss William Burns, the US deputy secretary of state turned up in Cairo to meet the Brotherhood’s top men. That indicates Israel is being discussed.
America’s strategic military interest in Egypt is confined to aircraft landing rights and unrestricted access to the Suez Canal. The combined cost is a fraction of the $1.3 billion military aid Congress has been waving through since Camp David in 1978.
America is prepared to send weapons into the safe hands of trusted allies. But when power shifts to the Islamic right or, as in Pakistan when their nuclear secrets end up in North Korea’s hands, America clams up.
Egypt’s military is in for more than a short back and sides. According to President Obama downsizing means cutting $500 billion out of the overall US defense budget. America is switching to protection against Iran and China, Obama says.
Clipping Egypt’s wings is much easier in Washington when SCAF tramples over human rights and hotheads call for medieval courts.
Feltman has deeper concerns. He’s worked out of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on the peace process and the Gaza economy. He’s butted heads with Palestinians many a time. Can Feltman do an about face on Hamas, which was formed by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood? Hillary Clinton could have chosen someone else to do the legwork. She opted for Feltman’s judgment, which is expected any day soon.
The same calculation is on William Hague’s mind. The British foreign secretary will be leafing through his in-tray looking for an aide-mémoire from his ambassador in Cairo, James Watt — the UK’s Lebanon ambassador when Feltman was America’s. (Both share a soft spot for Christmas carols).
Britain’s interests are mainly natural gas exploration, development and production. British Gas produces a third of Egypt’s gas, some of which was going to Israel until saboteurs blew up the pipeline.
By an extraordinary coincidence shares of companies exploiting Israel’s Tamar gas field in the Mediterranean shot up on Tuesday. Why? Long-term deals were signed worth more than $6 billion to supply Israel with natural gas sufficient for their needs.
Losing Israel as a customer won’t upset the Muslim Brotherhood. Losing sales of natural gas to Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq and on to Europe is a serious matter. Losing to Israel as a competitor won’t be taken lightly. The West’s dependence on Arab states for energy had been taken for granted.
Equally pressing is British Gas playing piggy-in-the middle in the Gaza gas-guzzle puzzle. BG (60%), Consolidated Contractors Company (30%) owned by Lebanon’s Sabbagh and Koury families and the Palestinian Authority (10%) own rights to exploit vast deposits of gas discovered by BG 30 kilometers off the Gaza coast.
The plan is for Gaza and the West Bank to be supplied and any surplus sold. Hamas could benefit by as much as $2 billion initially. Israel has been stymieing that.
As Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood’s offspring, Britain’s options include going cap in hand to the Muslim Brothers to commercialize those investments. They’ll probably bump into the Americans in the waiting room.
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based commentator.