The New Egypt and the Clash of Civilizations

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More lessons of history

In 1973 the leaders of Egypt learned two critical lessons from the October ‘Yom Kippur’ War.

The first was that it took a truly enormous effort to make even limited military gains against Israel. As part of its preparation for the assault, Egypt devoted a huge proportion of its GNP to the military. Military spending rose from 13% of GNP in 1969 to 25% by 1973.

Employing advanced Soviet bridging techniques, an extremely enterprising technique to blast tank pathways through Israeli sand-barriers and a huge supply of sophisticated Soviet weaponry, the much admired assault by Egyptian forces was a tremendous success in crossing the canal and pushing back Israeli defences. Yet even with the advantage of a powerful opening attack and almost total surprise, the attack failed to completely achieve its modest aim of seizing two Israeli military roads running parallel to the canal a mere 30 kilometres (20 miles) inside the Sinai.

Further, after first containing the simultaneous Syrian attack into the Golan, the Israeli counter-attack against Egypt stormed across to the western side of the canal and neutralised the initial Egyptian gains. The Egyptian Third Army was trapped on the eastern side of the canal and was saved from extinction only by desperate international pressure on Israel.

This forced on the Egyptian leaders the certain knowledge that the conquest of Israel would require efforts that were completely beyond them. That is, their inevitable conclusion was that in any foreseeable future war they were incapable of conquering Israel.

A balance of weakness

The second lesson learned was equally important. Despite the superior performance of the Israeli Defence Forces, the Israeli effort required to throw back the initial Egyptian and Syrian advances and make its own small gains also demonstrated to the Egyptian leaders that Israel did not possess the capacity to conquer Egypt. That is, as a counterpart to their realisation that they were unable to destroy Israel, they also realised that Israel was unable to threaten the existence of Egypt.

In other words, the Egyptians leaders recognised a stalemate bred of a balance of weakness; an understanding that neither side could be a mortal threat to the other. These lessons were the basis for Sadat’s extraordinary visit to the Knesset and the subsequent Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt that has lasted over thirty years.
But these lessons are now almost forty years old. In the current context of unprecedented and widespread unrest throughout much of the Arab world, a crucial current question is whether these lessons will stand or be tested again if and when, for example, a new and more vigorous Egyptian leadership takes over from the old-guard of Mubarak loyalists.

The return of Al-Qaradhawi

Like Lenin’s return from exile to Russia in 1917 or Khomeini’s return from exile to Iran in 1979 to direct their respective revolutions, the return to Egypt last week of the charismatic spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, threatens to be equally momentous.

As the prime public face of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaradhawi has dozens of books to his credit and a weekly TV program, Shari’a and Life, viewed by an estimated 40 million. Unlike many in the Islamic world, who deny the Nazi holocaust against the Jews, Qaradhawi openly accepts it. He believes that the Jews deserved it. As he explained on his TV program, (30 Jan 2009), the holocaust was a “divine punishment”. Further, he looks forward to yet more divine punishment of the Jews with the difference that “Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the believers”.

To make absolutely certain that no-one would mistake his remarks for some vague sentiment or the mere hope that Allah would again punish the Jews, he made clear his own willingness to join in the slaughter by proclaiming his personal desire to “shoot Allah’s enemies, the Jews”.

To many western ears these comments sound so lunatic that they are incapable of being taken seriously. Unfortunately, the Muslim Brotherhood and Qaradhawi are far more substantial than such complacent tolerance allows. More charismatic than Khomeini or Lenin, Qaradhawi was welcomed by a crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (Friday 18 Feb) estimated to be 2 million. Leading prayers, he called on Allah to allow him to witness the conquest of Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. He then took the lead in chants for the opening of the Rafah crossing from Egypt to Gaza.

The supreme guide

Prior to al-Qaradhawi’s re-appearance in Cairo, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Badi, departed from a frequently cautious approach in a highly significant speech on television last year. Calling for jihad against the US and Israel, he accused Arab and Muslim states of avoiding confrontation with the real enemies of Islam, the Zionist entity and the US, by disregarding Allah’s commandments to wage jihad against infidels.
Like Qaradhawi, he took care to remove any doubts about his meaning by stating that the changes sought by Muslims “can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as the enemies pursue life” (MEMRI, 06 Oct 2010).

Tactical flexibility

In contrast to these bold statements, various spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood, interviewed by the western media in Egypt over the past few weeks, have practically fallen over themselves to present a liberal and democratic face. Large sections of the media have in turn fallen over themselves to believe this and to present the Brotherhood as such to the western public.

Naturally, these liberal sentiments were proclaimed mainly in English to influence a western audience. By contrast, the jihadist statements are made in Arabic to an audience of Muslims and will never reach the bulk of the western audience. Statements from Qaradhawi include support for attacks on US troops in Iraq, praise and support for so-called ‘martyrdom operations’ in Israel (considered “an indication of the justice of Almighty Allah”), and advocacy of the murder of gays.

This capacity for ‘flexibility’ to disguise their fanaticism was illustrated in yet another way by Qaradhawi in his Tahrir Square sermon. Taking care not to antagonise the military, he praised it instead. Rather than making an open challenge he appealed to it to remove the government from power.

In other words, conscious of the long experience of repression of the Brotherhood under Mubarak and with the military still holding the reins of power in Egypt, the Brotherhood leadership in Egypt has not at all renounced violence as many in the western media believe. Instead, they have realistically concluded that for the moment it is too dangerous to engage in open violence against military rule.

Dual power?

In short, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are not merely fanatics but shrewd and flexible politicians quite able to adapt tactics to circumstances and if necessary to disguise themselves as charming and peaceful pluralists rather than Islamic extremists.

This relatively subtle approach of Qaradhawi in Tahrir Square nevertheless contains a hidden challenge. In the first place, the military is still the guardian of the government, which is fundamentally the Mubarak government without Mubarak. Therefore, to appeal to the military to remove the government from power is essentially to ask it to remove itself from power. Secondly, it tests the water, so to speak, to see if the military has either the stomach or the unity to suppress a mass movement that combines Islam with widespread social grievances and unrest. Thirdly, it leaves the way open for possible penetration of the military by the Brotherhood.

The risk for the military is that it could prove very dangerous to continue the Mubarak era policies of suppressing the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood currently enjoys a wide basis of support – estimated under Mubarak, in conditions where it was unable to operate fully or openly, at only 20%. It is well organised and tactically astute. Further, it has clear and popular aims, such as the implementation of Shari’a law, the destruction of Israel and the elimination of US and western influence in Egypt. Its leadership is determined and experienced and is well-known, popular and charismatic.

New opportunities & old risks

Most important of all, for the first time there is now a mass movement in existence which opens up huge opportunities for the Brotherhood that were previously unavailable to it. Further, in a society where open challenges to Islam are impossible and where self-identity with Islam is widespread, the Brotherhood is provided with a ready-made mass ideological base and communication network. In turn, this feeds its current surge of confidence in which it is very well placed to at least share in political power if not absolutely capture it. This will make it very difficult to suppress.

Consequently, to employ Leninist-style phraseology, it remains to be seen to what extent the Egyptian population is prepared to be ruled in the old way and to what extent the rulers are able to rule in the old way. As long as the Brotherhood takes care not to antagonise a united military, but instead concentrates its most extreme fire against Israel, it enjoys unprecedented opportunities and high hopes of attaining power.

Clearly, this balance between the military and the Brotherhood is unstable and cannot last. How it is resolved will have an enormous impact on Israel.

Re-testing the lessons of 1973?

A crucial question for Israel is whether the new Egypt will re-test of the lessons of 1973 with a far greater degree of fanatical determination. This would necessitate a new and invigorated military leadership which would probably have to base itself largely on religious fanaticism provided by leaders such as Qaradhawi. This would supply the determination, the rationale and the willingness to sustain tremendous suffering to make up for a (presumed) withdrawal of US military support if ever such fanatical leaders achieved power.

Failing this, at an absolute minimum, any new Egyptian leadership can be expected to work hard to escalate Israel’s difficulties with Gaza. Assistance in Gaza to the genocidal Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, seems inevitable.

A bleak prospect for Israel?

The scale of the continuing unrest that has spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, Yemen and Libya currently shows no sign of reaching an end. If so, it is bound to feed the conviction of righteousness and certainty felt by the Muslim Brotherhood and other jihadist groups and provide them with added confidence and recruits.

For Israel, already faced with Turkey, Iran, Syria, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, the potential increase of militant anti-Israel states in the region is a bleak prospect. In the context of the truly appalling incompetence of President Obama’s international leadership, the thought that Israel could be abandoned and sacrificed makes this an anxious time for Israel.

Very probably, there is only one decisive option that can break this anti-western and anti-Israel tide. The destruction of Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities by the US would be body-blow to the hopes of the Revolutionary Islamic regime. It would also be a shocking set-back to the confidence of a host of jihadist groups by depriving them of a source of apparently invincible inspiration and support (see The Need to Eliminate Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Capabilities). Further, along with the prior destruction of the Iranian navy and its mine-laying capacity, this would restore a balance of power between Iran and Iraq. Simultaneously, this would seriously weaken Hizbollah and Hamas.

Such a decisive show of force would re-establish US power in the region and be the biggest single contributor to peace and stability in the region. In effect, the issue boils down to how this clash of civilizations will be resolved in order to set the ground rules for the future development of the region and the wider world.

Relying on the unreliable

Currently, the outlook is that the Obama administration has an abysmal appreciation of these factors and consequently no stomach for such an enterprise. Therefore, the clamour is bound to increase for Israel to accommodate itself to western demands to cease settlement building in Judea-Samaria and present the Palestinians with a state on pre-1967 ‘borders’. Eager to acquire some good will from the west, there are some in Israel who would readily go along with this. Unfortunately, it would only weaken Israel and whet Islamic appetites for more concessions at the expense of Israeli security.

Nor would it provide the benefits promised. Those western friends of Israel who consistently vote against her in international bodies will remain as unreliable as ever for exactly the same basic reasons: their vulnerability to the pressures from the Arab/Oil lobby and the risks of repercussions from the Arab/Muslim populations within their own countries.

Those in Israel who are tempted down this path to rely on governments and states whose first instincts are naturally to safeguard their own interests is essentially a policy of inducing Israel into a reliance on the unreliable.

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