Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Mideast Media Sampler 7/02/13: This Time, New York Times Not So Enthralled By Egyptian Protests

by David Gerstman, contributing blogger at Legal Insurrection

Inspired, not

Inspired by the massive outpouring of popular opposition, the Tamarod, to the regime of President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt, the editors of the New York Times issued a call for the President hailing from the Muslim Brotherhood to take heed:
Mr. Morsi is put on notice

We sympathize with the frustration and anger that is drawing tens of thousands of Egyptians into the streets of Cairo and other cities this week, the country’s largest demonstrations since those that helped force the previous president, Hosni Mubarak from power, nearly two and a half years ago. Citizens of one of the Arab world’s great nations, they struggle with poverty — hunger and poverty rates have risen over the past three years — rising food prices, unemployment and political repression.

Inspired by so-called Arab Spring, they are demanding a government that respects its citizens’ voices and is truly committed to improving their lives. A lesson of the Arab Spring should be a warning to all rulers who cling to power for too long and ignore their people’s demands. President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt clearly hasn’t figured that out.

As the impetus for a major demonstration on Sunday grew, Mr. Morsi gave an unconvincing speech in a lame attempt to ward off dissatisfaction. The June 30 demonstrations are still on demanding Mr. Morsi's resignation. According to news reports, the protestors came from all social classes and ideologies.

As authoritarian governments often do, the one in Cairo is deluding itself about the causes for the unrest, which had left several people dead. Officials blamed the previous regime. Even if remnants of the Mubarak regime are playing a role; the truth seems more complex — it is easy to understand why Egyptians are fed up.

Mr. Morsi, 61, who has been in power for only a year and hailed by Time Magazine as the Most Important Man in the Middle East, has sought to use his office to extend his powers and those of the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of true democracy. Government projects that were supposed to benefit the poor only end up enriching the elite. He has intimidated numerous independentjournalists and criticsfomented sectarian violenceappointed a former terrorist as a regional governor and imposed the values of the Muslim Brotherhood on Egypt's artistic community.

This is a delicate moment for the United States and Egypt, an increasingly unreliable ally and partner in Arab-Israeli peace efforts.

Mr. Morsi may still have a chance to steer his country on a stable path without sacrificing it to extremist elements. That will require ordering security forces to exercise restraint against the protestors and — even more importantly — quickly offering Egyptians a credible, more democratic path forward.

Unfortunately, President Obama was wrong to cut funding to pro-democracy groups upon coming into office, sharply affecting their ability to compete politically with the better organized Islamists. However, on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry called publicly on the Egyptian government to "respect" the "spontaneous" peaceful protests. The administration needs to persuade President Morsi to accept the legitimacy and urgency behind the protests and begin talking to opposition groups. Egypt needs change. A peaceful transition would be best for everyone.
Actually that's not what the editors of the New York Times wrote. I changed several of the particulars from their January 26, 2011 editorial, Mr. Mubarak is put on notice. This time, the editors noticeably less enthusiastic about the opposition.

Protester with poster comparing Morsi and Mubarak
Egyptians can see the similarity between Morsi and Mubarak;
the media -- not so much. Credit: Business Insider

Today in Military Ultimatum in Egypt, the editors write:
On Monday, the military responded to a wave of increasingly violent anti-government protests by threatening to impose its own unspecified “road map” if the government and opposition forces did not resolve the political crisis in 48 hours.

The military played a role in Egyptian politics for decades but withdrew 10 months ago under pressure from Mr. Morsi. Although many opposition groups applauded the military’s willingness to again intervene in politics now, that would be a major setback for Egyptian democracy. It would effectively give the military an opening to reinsert itself whenever there is a political crisis — and it is certain there will be more if Egypt wants to be on the road to real democracy. An adviser to Mr. Morsi said, “We understand it as a military coup.”
There are two underlying premises to the editorial that are faulty.

One is that Morsi has greater legitimacy than Mubarak did simply because he was elected. The other is that the military is a major obstacle to democracy. True, Morsi asserted some civilian control over the military but it shouldn't be understood as a democratic reform, but a way of removing an obstacle to his intended power grabs.

In the first case, even if Morsi was elected democratically, he did not govern that way. Despite occasional criticisms the New York Times didn't make a sustained effort to highlight the way he usurped power.

The second point is that while no one should attribute democratic ideals or altruistic motives the Egypt's military, it has enough self-interest to preserve its privileged status in Egypt to serve as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood's increasing authoritarianism.

The Muslim Brotherhood isn't simply a political party, like Democrats or Republicans in the United States. It is a highly disciplined organization that demands fealty to ideas and practices by its members. There are no casual members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover its ideology is anti-American and antisemitic and has its roots in Nazism. Last year Barry Rubin described its goals:
What is most important to understand about the Brotherhood is that, despite its religion-based ideology, it should be viewed in political, not theological terms. It is and has always been a revolutionary organization seeking to seize state power and then to transform thoroughly the societies where it operates.
But how does the New York Times view the Muslim Brotherhood? In today's editorial it criticizes the organization:
The primary blame falls on Mr. Morsi and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood. Persecuted and excluded from political life for decades, they refused to grasp what was required to lead the world’s largest Arab country. They used elections to monopolize power, denigrate adversaries and solidify ties with Islamist hard-liners.
The premise to this rebuke is that if only the Brotherhood understood what was best for Egypt it wouldn't have subverted the revolution to its own ends. (It also assumes that the Brotherhood doesn't consist of "Islamist hard-liners.") But the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't care about such matters. It wishes to transform society, not govern in the way a liberal American newspaper would expect or want it to.

Morsi is no more legitimate than Mubarak because he ruled for less time or because he was once elected. He never accepted that there were limits on his power and sought to exploit as much authority as he could. This might have worked if eighty or ninety percent of Egypt supported the Brotherhood. But Morsi won only a little more than half the votes. That is why the dissatisfaction with him is so strong.

The current opposition is no less legitimate or worthy than the Tahrir Square protesters of 2011, simply because they don't have a recognizable face like Wael Ghonim. Then those spearheading the drive to oust Mubarak had no more of a defined agenda than the current protesters. Those who did have a coherent plan was the Muslim Brotherhood, which was content to stay in the background and ride the wave of discontent to power.

The bottom line is that Egypt's military isn't the obstacle to Egyptian self-government, the Muslim Brotherhood government is. It is a point that the editors of the New York Times refuse to grasp.

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