Thursday, July 11, 2013

Tom Friedman, Still Wrong About Egypt

In the 1970s Tom Friedman attended the American University in Cairo. Apparently, he did not learn very much when he was there, because he continues to misunderstand what is going on in Egypt.

By now, everyone, including The New York Times reporters understands how a failed economy created the conditions that led to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood. Friedman, however, continues to read the events in terms of his own democracy narrative.

When the Mubarak regime fell Friedman was camped out in Tahrir Square breathing the fresh air of a new democracy. For all his vaunted wisdom he did not see that Egypt was about to become a theocratic hellhole, ruled by a fascist political party whose goal was to impose itself on all Egyptians.

Like many left-thinking people, Friedman is unhappy with the military coup. He does not seem to know that the overthrow of the Morsi regime brought a quick end to Egypt’s misery. Instead, he makes this jaw-dropping remark:

But in the Arab world’s long transition to democracy, something valuable was lost when the military ousted Morsi’s government and did not wait for the Egyptian people to do it in October’s parliamentary elections or the presidential elections three years down the road. It gives the Muslim Brothers a perfect excuse not to reflect on their mistakes and change, which is an essential ingredient for Egypt to build a stable political center.

This is ignorant, even by Friedman standards. Why did he not notice that something valuable was gained—like food and fuel?

But, wherever did Friedman get the idea that theocratic fanatics like the Muslim Brothers have any interest in engaging in pragmatic reasoning? Their reason for being is precisely the rejection of all compromise with a profane world. He must be the only living soul who believes that Morsi would have reflected on his failure and moved toward more liberal democratic and capitalist values.

And where did Friedman ever get the idea that the Brothers could be part of the political center? Fascist political movements do not move naturally toward the political center.

Why does Friedman imagine that future elections would have been fair? Doesn’t he know that the Islamic Republic of Iran has had many “free” elections, but that these elections have not made a dent in the power of the mullahs?

Now, Friedman is calling for national reconciliation and hopes that the month of Ramadan will inspire everyone in Egypt to embrace it.

In his words:

 The Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts this week, and it can’t come too soon. One can only hope that the traditional time for getting family and friends together will provide a moment for all the actors in Egypt to reflect on how badly they’ve behaved — all sides — and opt for the only sensible pathway forward: national reconciliation.

Note how Friedman draws a moral equivalence between the Muslim Brothers, the military that overthrew them and the democratic activists who opposed both. Given his puerile sensibility, Friedman can do no better than to tax all Egyptians with bad behavior. It sounds like he is talking about unruly children and believes that Ramadan will give them all a needed time out.

By failing to see the Brothers for what they are Friedman conjures an image where the practice of Islam is going to promote reconciliation between the warring camps.

Yet, a religion that demands submission and that extends its grasp through holy war can hardly be expected to provide the groundwork for reconciliation. When exactly did radical Islamists start believing in the virtue of reconciling with, say, Christians?

It is sad to reflect that in serious intellectual circles this passes for intelligent foreign policy analysis.

Happily, a day after Friedman phoned in his latest piece of sloppy thinking, the New York Times laid out the real issues in Egypt. Obviously, much of the information contained therein has been available to those who cared to pay attention.

Most importantly, the Times reported that today, after the overthrow of the Morsi regime, everyday life was returning to normal for the average Egyptian.

Where Friedman sees hatred, the Times sees progress:

The streets seethe with protests and government ministers are on the run or in jail, but since the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi, life has somehow gotten better for many people across Egypt: Gas lines have disappeared, power cuts have stopped and the police have returned to the street.

As for the interpretation, the Times offers that institutions loyal to Mubarak and Egyptian financial interests rejected the Morsi administration and refused to do their jobs. This silent rebellion prepared the coup:

Working behind the scenes, members of the old establishment, some of them close to Mr. Mubarak and the country’s top generals, also helped finance, advise and organize those determined to topple the Islamist leadership, including Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire and an outspoken foe of the Brotherhood; Tahani El-Gebali, a former judge on the Supreme Constitutional Court who is close to the ruling generals; and Shawki al-Sayed, a legal adviser to Ahmed Shafik, Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, who lost the presidential race to Mr. Morsi.

But it is the police returning to the streets that offers the most blatant sign that the institutions once loyal to Mr. Mubarak held back while Mr. Morsi was in power. Throughout his one-year tenure, Mr. Morsi struggled to appease the police, even alienating his own supporters rather than trying to overhaul the Interior Ministry. But as crime increased and traffic clogged roads — undermining not only the quality of life, but the economy — the police refused to deploy fully.

Until now.

White-clad officers have returned to Cairo’s streets, and security forces — widely despised before and after the revolution — intervened with tear gas and shotguns against Islamists during widespread street clashes last week, leading anti-Morsi rioters to laud them as heroes. Posters have gone up around town showing a police officer surrounded by smiling children over the words “Your security is our mission, your safety our goal.”

Of course, there are other cogent interpretations. Many Egyptians believed that Morsi was, besides being a tyrant, fundamentally incompetent and was responsible for his own problems. And, as soon as the military took over, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent massive amounts of money to Egypt

The Times offers us the alternate point of view:

…  supporters of the interim government said the improvements in recent days were a reflection of Mr. Morsi’s incompetence, not a conspiracy. State news media said energy shortages occurred because consumers bought extra fuel out of fear, which appeared to evaporate after Mr. Morsi’s fall. On Wednesday, Al Ahram, the flagship newspaper, said the energy grid had had a surplus in the past week for the first time in months, thanks to “energy-saving measures by the public.”

“I feel like Egypt is back,” Ayman Abdel-Hakam, a criminal court judge from a Cairo suburb, said after waiting only a few minutes to fill up his car at a downtown gas station. He accused Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to seize all state power and accused them of creating the fuel crisis by exporting gasoline to Hamas, the militant Islamic group in the Gaza Strip.

“We had a disease, and we got rid of it,” Mr. Abdel-Hakam said.

One is not surprised that supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood would believe that irredentist elements of the Mubarak regime would have sabotaged its best efforts.  One might look at the situation and say that these elements understood what the Muslim Brotherhood was about and chose to engage a silent rebellion against tyranny.

Why is it that a rebellion against Mubarak was a blow for liberty while a rebellion against Mohamed Morsi is seen as an unjust blow against democracy?


Sam L. said...

TF knows what he knows, and will be told no different, even by reality itself.

I think Paullie "The Beard" Krugman does, too.

Anonymous said...

Tom Friedman has a precocious imagination, especially when he's using the passive voice in his writing.

"Long transition to democracy"? By my math, Middle Easten democratic movements have been a post-WW2 phenomenon. Try building and sustaining a middle class rather than rushing into "free and fair elections," as American politiians/bureaucrats/journalists are always lamoring for.

I especially love his "Daddy Knows Best for Ramadan" quotes. National reconciliation? That requires humility, which the fanatics don't understand.

Food and fuel? Too practical. Not "big concept" enough for the author of "The Lexus and the Olive Tree."

I remember someone sating that Friedman gets himself in trouble when he talks about topics outside the Middle East. This piece serves as a counter-example to that thesis, showing tha he's almost always in trouble.

Friedman drives me crazy when he appears on Chalie Rose. He uses Charlie's first name endlessly... "Charlie, Charlie, Charlie" before and after seemingly every comment. The hallmark of a sycophant.