Is the Muslim Brotherhood on the March in Egypt?
- A Round Table discussion with Jonathan Schanzer
by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates (February 2011)
With the immolation of a fruit peddler in Tunisia in mid-December which led to the fall of the 23 year reign of strongman President Ben-Ali in Tunisia, a fuse was lit that erupted in a series of popular uprisings and protests against Arab strongmen in Algeria, Yemen, the Kingdom of Jordan and, most graphically, in Egypt, ruled for over 30 years by President Hosni Mubarak. For nearly two weeks in late January and early February 2011, the world’s media has been filled with images of mobs of virtually leaderless protesters confronting government supporters racing across Tahrir square in Cairo and cities in more than 12 provinces across this largest of Arab nations.
While Mubarak has announced that he would not run in a proposed September election, the Egyptian street continues to demand his immediate resignation as President. Heavy gun fire erupted on Thursday morning, February 3rd in Tahrir Square with several protesters killed and a number of injuries, raising questions of whether the Mubarak government has decided to brutally end the roiling opposition demonstrations.
Lurking in the background is the Muslim Brotherhood, banned and suppressed, along with most reformist parties in Egypt, by the Mubarak regime. However, the Muslim Brotherhood with its totalitarian ideology and its network of mosques, schools and social welfare offices has an infrastructure that could be a springboard for asserting control in a possible post-Mubarak government. The Obama Administration, while raising the expectations of Arab street protesters in Egypt with the President’s speech at Al Azhar University in June 2009, appears to have no program to assist Egypt with transition to a representative democracy. Prominent Egyptian leaders like former head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Mohammed El-Baradei is the only internationally recognized opposition leader. And yet, his views on relations with Israel under the ‘cold peace’ treaty of 1992, and, questionable views on the Iranian nuclear program's threat to the region and the world are problematic. His proposals of opening up participation for all parties in Egypt may be the stalking horse for the Muslim Brotherhood to exert its influence and perfect its ultimate agenda of converting Egypt into a Salafist Islamic Republic. It is not lost on many observers that the Islamic republic in Iran is the only country that has openly supported the current uprising in Egypt. This prospect has raised fears in certain quarters that the US could be facilitating the emergence of another fundamentalist Islamic Republic, a natural ally of the Shia Ayatollahs in Tehran that the Carter Administration in its ignorance facilitated in 1979.
But there could be a solution that involves the Egyptian military whom the protesters respect, at least, until orders are giving to rout them from the public squares in Cairo and a host of other major Egyptian cities. Israel, while remaining officially silent, given Mubarak’s record of maintaining the peace and cooperating on dealing with Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, is nevertheless nervous, watchful and maintaining military presence on its southern borders and seizing Hamas operatives in the West Bank.
Against this background “Your Turn” host Mike Bates, of radio station 1330AMWEBY of Pensacola, Florida, Senior Editor Jerry Gordon of the New English Review and Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President of Washington, DC- based, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies held a radio round table discussion about the issues and possible solution of this roiling popular uprising in Egypt and the overarching dangerous role that the Muslim Brotherhood might play in the unfolding drama.
Mike Bates: Good afternoon, welcome to Your Turn. This is Mike Bates. What is happening in Egypt? What’s happening in Jordan? How does it affect Israel and what is going on in the Middle East? We’re going to have our round table discussion with Jerry Gordon here in Pensacola, Florida along with Jonathan Schanzer in Washington D.C. Jerry Gordon is a Senior Editor at the New English Review and its blog, The Iconoclast. Jerry welcome to Your Turn.
Jerry Gordon: Good to be here Mike.
Bates: And joining by telephone from Washington D.C., Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President of Research for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Welcome Jon.
Jonathan Schanzer: Thanks Mike.
Bates: This is really a big news story and I don’t think that anyone has quite put it in what could potentially be just how huge this is to the world scene. This could very well mirror the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. There are some, myself included, who are a bit concerned about that. There are others who attribute it to an oppressed people who want democracy in the Middle East. We’ll try to sort this out. Jonathan, let’s start with you. What was the catalyst for this uprising in Egypt?
Schanzer: Well the catalyst actually took place in Tunisia back in mid December of 2010, when a young vegetable peddler was forced to shut down his vegetable cart and he was humiliated publicly by Tunisian officials. This distraught young man was so upset that he actually set himself on fire. This took place in rural Tunisia and protests started there and then spread to the capital Tunis. Then as we saw on television over the course of the past three weeks the protests grew in size and intensity leading to the flight of President Ben Ali on January 14th. Now what happened was a light bulb went off in the minds of many Arab populations. They looked at Tunisia, a tiny North African country and saw that they had toppled the dictator of 23 years and they began to think that if Tunisia, a rather small insignificant country could do this, why can’t we? What we began to see I were some copy cats across the Arab world in Saudi Arabia, in Algeria, in Egypt, people began to light themselves on fire hoping to set off a similar chain of events. That did not work but what we began to see is this protest movement rise again that was put down in Egypt back in 2005. That protest movement was called, “Kifaya “which means in Egyptian Arabic, “enough.” It was put down five years ago but it has never really been snuffed out. What we now see is a leaderless protest movement emerging. We have seen eight days of protest that have grown in size and intensity. Today an estimated 300,000 people were out in the streets of Cairo demanding nothing less than the fall of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak who has been in power for 30 years.
Bates: And let’s very quickly state how Hosni Mubarak came to power. There are many people that are describing him as a dictator. He was the Vice President of Egypt when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by his own forces in retaliation for signing the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Hosni Mubarak assumed the presidency at that point and has remained in power ever since. Is Egypt however, any semblance of a democracy with people having a vote?
Schanzer: Well the people can vote. The question is what does that vote mean? The parties are handpicked by the government. There is utter repression throughout the country. The fact that you can’t choose your own president in Egypt is not lost on a population that is somewhat sophisticated. This is the cultural center of the Arab world and there is a lot of shame among the people of Egypt for the fact that they have been ruled by what they call a Pharaoh.
Gordon: Jon, you were in Egypt in 2001. What is your recollection about the composition of the people and in particularly how fundamentalist are Muslims there?
Schanzer: The country is 90% Muslim in Egypt. 10 % of Egypt’s population is Coptic Christians (the “Copts). The Copts are a downtrodden minority. The people of Egypt, the culture of Egypt are steeped in Islam. There are minarets at every turn. When I lived in Cairo, I had this distinct memory of being jarred awake every morning at 5:00AM hearing the Fajr, the morning call to prayer. You would just hear the echo of the Muezzins’ call from Minarets throughout the country. When you walked around you would see Muslim men with what they call the “zabib” which literally means “raisin.” This was a rug burn on their foreheads from praying five times a day. So Egypt is steeped in Islamic culture. That is not to say there isn’t a secular culture in Egypt as well. However, there is a sharp dichotomy in the population. You can’t help but notice that there is this tension between the Islamists there, the very religious and the seculars.
Gordon: Tell us about this group that everybody has been talking about in the mainstream media, the Muslim Brotherhood. How did it originate in Egypt and why is it a possible danger?
Schanzer: The Muslim Brotherhood originated in the late 1920’s. It was founded by a man named Hassan Al-Banna who was actually an Islamic Fundamentalist school teacher. The story goes that he was sitting in an Egyptian café, when Egypt was under the rule of the British. When he was looking around he found men wearing shorts and reading newspapers in English listening to Western music. He apparently was so enraged that he got up in the middle of the café and began to preach. He quickly gained followers and the movement very quickly spread from Egypt throughout the world. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood has a presence in more than 100 different countries, including the US. It is by far the most popular Islamist movement in the world. The movement itself is based on a very chauvinist ideology, a totalitarian ideology that views Islam as the dominant world force and that ultimately Shariah law, the law of Islam, must reign supreme and that Allah will rule over all of these countries. The Muslim Brotherhood ideology is extremely dangerous. It has played out in many different ways. In Egypt it has lead to a couple of ideologues. The one that comes primarily to mind is Sayyid Qutb, who in the 1950’s and 1960’s prompted the followers of the Muslim Brotherhood to carry out violence against the state in Egypt. A lot of the other radical Islamic movements in the world today have been inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, Hamas which was born in 1988 in the Gaza Strip in the West Bank is a direct offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas created a suicide bombing infrastructure responsible for the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of Israelis over the last several decades. It is also important to point out that Osama Bin Laden; the leader of Al Qaeda looked to Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue in the 1950’s and ‘60’s as the inspiration for Al Qaeda’s program. Bin Laden paired up with a Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood ideologue by the name of Abdullah Azzam to create Al Qaeda in the late 1980’s. The Muslim Brotherhood is an extremely dangerous organization and dangerous ideology now possibly on the brink of joining a replacement government in Egypt if not taking it over.
Gordon: Didn’t the Muslim Brotherhood have an association with the Nazis beginning in the late 1920’s and going through the end of the war?
Schanzer: Well, it has been reported as such. I believe you should differentiate the activities of Hajj Amin Al Husseini who was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who was not necessarily Muslim Brotherhood, but had direct ties to Hitler and the Nazis. He was Hitler’s house guest in Berlin during WWII and had sponsored Waffen SS Muslim military units used against Jews and others. Al Banna had been an early devotee of Hitler in the 1920’s. Many of Egypt’s military leaders were members of the Free Officer Corps who overthrew Egypt’s King Farouk, in 1952. A number of them were Nazi supporters during WWII. Those included Egypt’s Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. It has been reported that the Muslim Brotherhood learned a lot from the Nazis in the 1940’s, the Brownshirts and the organizational activities and there were at least some ties that were reported.
Gordon: How important is the representation of the Muslim Brotherhood in what passes for the Egyptian Parliament?
Schanzer: Well, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is not allowed to be a political party in Egypt. It has been banned. After the years of struggle between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood it was essentially edged out of power and they were forced to renounce their violent ideology. With that said, it is important to remember that the Brotherhood is probably the most poised opposition right now in Egypt. They have infrastructure. They have funds coming in. They have a network of mosques, schools and social infrastructure. If Egypt fell into full chaos tomorrow, the Egyptian Military walked away, the government completely dissolved, Mubarak resigned and elections held, I would venture to say that the Brotherhood could probably exploit this better than any other group. The other opposition groups have really been kept under the thumb of Mubarak. He has never really let them have any oxygen to breath. It is really the Brotherhood that would emerge victorious. That is ironic because Mubarak always told the West that the reason why he needed to stay in power and the reason why there needed to be a dictator was because he alone was responsible for keeping the Muslim Brotherhood in check. What he should have been doing along the way was allowing these other secular opposition groups to grow so that they could compete with the Brotherhood. He never let them do that and that is why there is a danger of a well-organized Brotherhood. People, both inside and outside Egypt are calling for elections right now. That is a big mistake because in my opinion the Brotherhood would win.
Bates: The Muslim Brotherhood is not just an ideology of trying to educate people to their cause. They advocate violence towards the West, towards Jews, towards Christians. Is this potentially a 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution that we are witnessing in Egypt?
Schanzer: We are on the precipice of this. In essence you are right, that we should be concerned about the most powerful Islamist group in Egypt with a violent ideology being in a position of strength while chaos unfolds. I think the difference is that back in 1979 you had Ayatollah Khomeini who was in exile in France providing direction to people on the ground in Iran calling for the fall of the Shah. We don’t know if that is the case right now in Egypt. What appears to be happening is organic, very much, a leaderless uprising. Some of the reports that I’m receiving from Egypt indicate that the Muslim Brotherhood has organized their own protests. They’ve actually been joined by Christians and seculars. They have been overrun. We do not get the sense that it’s the Brotherhood that is driving this. But make no mistake about it; they will try to exploit the situation. They are looking for openings and ways to get stronger as a result of what’s happening even if they didn’t start it.
Bates: We talk about this being a popular uprising and somewhat leaderless and yet the name Mohamed El Baradei keeps popping up in the media. This is a name that is known to Westerners who pay attention to the global scene. He was head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He was in charge of the U.N. inspections of the Iranian nuclear weapons development program who claimed that they were not seeking anything destructive, that they wanted peaceful energy and now here he seems to be aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. What role is Mohamed El Baradei playing in current opposition in Egypt? Can he be trusted?
Schanzer: These are all very good questions. Let me provide some of the background. El Baradei was head of the IAEA from 1997 until 2009 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his efforts. When he retired he went back to Egypt and he began to talk about change. Now a lot of people embraced this. In fact, there are thousands of people on Facebook, for example, who embraced him, are fans of his and he has huge following in Egypt. His name continues to pop up in the world press with respect to Egyptian politics. However, we should not forget that El Baradei presided over Iran’s greatest period of progress in going nuclear and continued to turn a blind eye. He said that he did not believe that the Iranians were making progress in their nuclear weapons development program. Instead, he pointed the finger at the Israelis and said that they posed a greater threat to the region than Iran. His behavior was beyond curious. It was inexcusable. Contrast how he is positioning himself in the current Egyptian popular uprising. In El Baradei you have a prominent Egyptian who won the Nobel Peace Prize, talks up democracy, saying all the right things and looking like a fairly good alternative to current Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for 30 years. So now when chaos envelops the streets in Egypt, he is the only really famous Egyptian out there in politics. You can’t name another political figure in Egypt who has his name recognition among Egyptians and internationally. El Baradei has a following and the Muslim Brotherhood likes what he says. He wants to have a complete opening up of the Egyptian system. He wants all parties to be able to participate. That is not something that the Muslim Brotherhood has heard in a very long time. The Brotherhood likes the idea of letting El Baradei open up the political space and then, in my opinion, I believe they are going to try and exploit the opening that El Baradei may create for them to advance their agenda.
Gordon: How do we know the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t already on the march?
Schanzer: This is a good question. When you look at the make-up of the protests right now you are not really seeing a strong Muslim Brotherhood presence. Of course we are hearing from Brotherhood figures saying that after the regime is toppled they are going to go after Israel or they want to create an Islamist regime. But there is a real danger lurking in the south of Egypt. I point out in a piece that I wrote in the National Interest, “Watch the Islamists” recently to keep an eye on the area that we call Upper Egypt. It is actually Southern Egypt because the Nile flows South to North so geographically speaking they call it Upper Egypt. This is the area where the Egyptian Islamists, the Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya (“The Islamic Group”) and al-Jihad, the two organizations that went on to become the cornerstone of Al Qaeda in the 1990’s, originated. This is the region where the man who assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981, Egyptian Army Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli came from. While Ayman al-Zawahiri came from Cairo, most of the Egyptian Al Qaeda cadres came from Upper Egypt. I have watched Al-Jazeera for the past eight days and there has been nothing coming out of Upper Egypt. It’s been absolutely silent. If we see protests coming out of that Southern area, that is a sign that the Islamists may be on the march. That would be a huge red flag. I have been stressing in my analysis that the Obama Administration needs to do something quickly. It’s been on the fence for the last eight days, not knowing what to do. Mubarak, of course is a US ally but this Administration also wants to be on the right side of history in support a democratic movement. As a result they have been paralyzed. They don’t know exactly what to do. What I have written is that the longer these protests continue the better chance there will be that the Islamists begin to rise. They will catch wind of what’s happening up north and try to get in the act. The Islamists in Egypt have been repressed for decades. They are looking for their shot at Mubarak as well.
Bates: I saw an article in today’s Jerusalem Post that says a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Muhammad Ghannem told the Arabic Language Iranian News Network, al Alam on Monday that he would like to see the Egyptian people prepare for war against Israel. Mohammed Ghannem reportedly told al Alam that the Suez Canal should be closed immediately and that the flow of gas from Egypt to Israel should cease, “in order to bring about the downfall of the Mubarak regime.” He added that “the people should be prepared for war against Israel” saying the world should understand that the Egyptian people are prepared for anything to get rid of this regime. Israel has every right to be concerned, even absent such remarks.
Schanzer: Absolutely it does. The Iranians seem to be the only people that have openly supported the Egyptian people. The Iranians have been promoting this democratic movement trying to give it an Islamist flavor. They would like nothing more than to see this empower the Muslim Brotherhood. This would certainly benefit them in the long run as they would see a natural alliance between a Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalist government in Egypt and the Islamic Republic in Iran. The irony here is that they are supporting a movement that we should be supporting in some way or another, recognizing the fact that the tyrant should no longer be in power in Egypt. This raises all sorts of questions about what the US should be supporting. We will address that when we discuss possible options that Obama has.
Bates: Mubarak may be a tyrant to his own people, and I’m not necessarily defending that. However, he has also honored the peace treaty with Israel. He has kept peace in the region. He has kept the Suez Canal open. He has been to some degree at least internationally a stabilizing force vis a vis Israel versus what so many of the other Arab neighbors in the region would like to see happen to the State of Israel.
Schanzer: That’s right. We can’t forget that Mubarak has kept the peace. The US has been paying him good money to do that. Our taxpayers have funded about $2 billion dollars plus a year, almost all of which goes to the Egyptian military. They have kept calm in the region and they have maintained peace with Israel. They keep the Suez Canal open, which is the waterway that we use to provide material to our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and other points in the war on terror. The Egyptians have been good in those respects. However, the resulting stability is to a certain extent a false one. It has been a facade behind which there is a restive population that feels that they are not free and that they are not having their interests properly represented. There is always some unrest simmering beneath the surface and the Mubarak regime has had to deal with that. Over the past 30 years it has put down Islamists and reform movements. At the end of the day what you want, ideally, to see is a democratic or a more liberal regime in Egypt that would hopefully embrace the United States and Israel, but not want rise up against the country’s leadership.
Bates: My question is regarding the US position or lack thereof as to what is going on in Egypt. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told his Ministers to basically stay quiet on this so that neither side can use their remarks against them. However, Israel’s President Shimon Peres said that they have great respect for President Mubarak. Peres went on to say while Mubarak didn’t do everything right he managed to keep the peace in the Middle East. We have not heard much coming from the Obama Administration. What is the U.S. doing about this and what should the U.S. be doing?
Schanzer: The Israelis need to be neutral on this. The last thing they need to do is run afoul of a new democratic government that could step in. I’m sure they’ve been in touch with Mubarak offline because there are strong ties between Israel and the Mubarak regime. As for the United States, we could not have fouled this any worse than we did. I think you need to step back and take a look at what happened when President Obama came to power. He ran on a ticket that cast him as the anti-Bush candidate. When he came in he effectively overturned a lot of the prior Administration foreign policy initiatives. The Bush Doctrine had a huge component concerning Arab reform. The idea was that if we could just get some of these Arab states to open up a little bit there may be less of a draw to Islamism, more of a draw towards secular democracy and you may find that the allure of radical Islam would abate. What happened was that Mr. Obama decided to reach out to all of the tyrants that we had been pushing and prodding over the last seven years. He effectively tried to reset relations with all of these tyrants. This did not look very good for the people on the streets in Cairo, Amman or anywhere else in the Arab world. Two years later the anger on the street has simmered enough that we are seeing the eruption of these protest movements. At this juncture we don’t have a lot of assets on the ground in the region. We don’t have allies. People feel as if this administration has forsaken them for these ossified dictatorships. I think that we really misplayed our hand. That leads us to what sort of choices are available for the Obama Administration right now. The policy options they do have make it very difficult for them to turn around on a dime. They haven’t been pressing these regimes to change and haven’t been putting any pressure on them at all up until now. It makes it very difficult to pivot very quickly and tell Mubarak, you are wrong. You have got to open up more than we have seen over the last eight days. It has become is a very slow slide into an admission by the Obama Administration that the Egyptian people deserve better and that Mubarak needs to open up and start undergoing a process of reform or step down. It took a long time to get there and the Egyptian people are keenly aware of this and are very unhappy with the United States. The fact is that we’ve been providing much assistance to Mubarak but not pressuring him at the same time as had the Bush Administration.
Bates: To the outsider, the Obama Administration appears to be playing whichever side we believe may emerge victorious. If we support Hosni Mubarak and he collapses, then whatever government may take over doesn’t like us, doesn’t trust us. However, if we throw Hosni Mubarak to the wolves then what do our other allies think of our support for them should there be potential unrest in their streets as we have seen in Jordan. Saudi Arabia is not exactly the happiest place on earth right now. So what options do we really have?
Schanzer: We may have a possible answer to that. My FDD colleague Khairi Abaza and I have published a piece in The New Republic in which we set forth a transition plan. It was a plan that was actually formulated in the mid 1980’s by the secular WAFD party of Egypt. It was inspired by the 1980 coup that took place in Turkey where the government was overthrown but the military cooperated with an interim civilian leadership and presided over a peaceful transition that included the creation of a constitution and led to elections in 1983. All of this was done very smoothly. What we are suggesting is that the United States should embrace this plan. It’s an Egyptian plan so it won’t feel as if we are imposing our will on the Egyptian people. It actually reflects what Mohamed El Baradei is calling for right now. It could effectively encourage a smooth transition into democratic governance forcing Mubarak to step aside, putting in place a caretaker government whether it is El Baradei or the new Vice President Omar Suleiman who used to be the Head of Intelligence. Someone needs to step in and preside over a process where Egypt makes these important steps toward democracy. The one thing that we stress is that it doesn’t have to be either Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood. If this is done right and we include, let’s say, a two-year transition period that would enable secular parties to grow and obtain more funding and put their ideas out there for the Egyptian people to embrace. I believe we would see a leveling of the playing field such that the Brotherhood might actually lose some of its support as other parties, which were not allowed to thrive under the Mubarak regime could actually flex a little bit more muscle, politically. Having an Egyptian reformer as a co-author enabled us to get that kind of exposure in The New Republic. This is probably the only middle ground that would make sense to facilitate political reform in Egypt.
Bates: That article by the way, I would encourage you to go online and read it, it is at www.tnr.com and the title of the article is “The Answer to Egypt’s Problem.” Assuming that such a scenario can be worked out, would that be enough to placate the protesters to stop the unrest right now and allow a peaceful transition from the government of Hosni Mubarak to whatever may come next?
Schanzer: The short answer is we don’t know. The Mubarak regime announced, while we have been holding this round table discussion, that President Mubarak will not seek reelection in September. I think his hope is that this would be enough to allow him to step down gracefully and to walk away. I think that the Egyptian people want nothing less than to see him go and to go right now. So then the question becomes, will they continue to press for his departure in the streets and is this the only plan or are there other means available?
Gordon: This brings up the question pursuant to the WAFD plan in your TNR article about the dynamic role the US played in fostering infrastructure that assisted Solidarity in toppling Soviet –style Communism in Poland in the 1980’s. Why isn’t it the responsibility of the US as a principal ally of Egypt to devote resources for the implementation of the plan that you talked about?
Schanzer: The U.S. should do that to some extent. I don’t know, given the current domestic financial situation and rising national debt in the US, we can do more. Given the billions that we have provided the Egyptians in military and economic aid over the years, we doubt the Obama Administration is going to provide additional funds. However, one thing that we can do is leverage the military assistance we give to Egypt. We can say to their military, if you don’t insure this transition, we are going to cut off aid. We don’t have to make that a public threat, but it certainly could be something that we communicate and might help as a prod to action. It is important to make sure that some of these other secular parties like the WAFD party for example receive our assistance so that they can get their message out to the Egyptian polity.
Bates: Is that aid that we give to Egypt an obligation from the Egyptian Israeli Peace Treaty?
Schanzer: It’s grown over the years. It certainly didn’t start at $2 billion. A lot of it comes back to us because the funds go toward purchasing military hardware that we produce here in the US. It is similar to what we do with the Israelis. As you know, we are heavily intertwined with the Egyptian Military. We have trained their Officer Corps. We have provided them Abrams M1 tanks and F16 fighter bombers. We have provided pretty much everything that they need in order to have a functioning military. If you looked at the Wikileaks that came out about the Egyptian Military, they revealed the fact that there is a lot of concern in the State Department and our military that the leadership there is still much ossified with backward thinking that still views Israel as the primary threat. This has obviously been cause for concern and may have actually been an indication that we should not have been providing the Egyptian military with as much assistance over the years. Unfortunately what is done is done. They are our leverage. As I mentioned earlier I believe this President decided to forsake the democracy agenda that Bush had started in the previous decades. We’ve have to start over. Leveraging assistance to the Egyptian military is really the only chance we have at this time to facilitate political transition and stifle the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Gordon: Upper Egypt abuts Northern Sudan, which has been in the news recently because of the referendum to partition the country. In January of 2009, the Israelis undertook a strategic attack on a convoy not too far from Port Sudan that was transiting weapons supplied by Iran to none other than Hamas via Upper Egypt. Isn’t that a palpable example of the threat in Southern Egypt filled with Muslim Brotherhood supporters?
Schanzer: Absolutely. Sudan fell to revolution in 1989 and was essentially taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood. Shortly thereafter the Iranians came in and built up a military that was fashioned after their own. There are weapons factories that have been identified as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the international terrorist organization that is state run by the Iranians. So Sudan has been a hub for terrorism for a long time. Don’t forget that it was the home base of Al Qaeda from 1992 to 1996 so the Sudanese have been up to their eyeballs in terrorism. We now know that there have been some weapons transfers that the Israelis took out. When the Iranians send weapons to Hamas, they usually start in Sudan, make their way up through Upper Egypt, go into the Sinai and then they are put through those tunnels into the Gaza Strip to Hamas. That is the pipeline and Upper Egypt is critical to that terrorist weapons supply chain. That is why I think there is still an Islamist presence we may see soon and, that would be a red flag for us to watch for.
Gordon: Back in 1956 there was a joint military operation by the British and the French, with some participation by the Israelis that effectively ended up closing the Suez Canal. Could we see that occur once again as sort a psychological threat to the West?
Schanzer: Yes we certainly could. That would be the threat posed by a Muslim Brotherhood government or any other government in Egypt hostile to the US or the West. This is one of the reasons why we had gyrations in the stock market. We are seeing a rise in oil prices. The concern over the Suez Canal is reflected in something like 4.5 % of the world’s oil travels through the waterway every year. So we obviously have a lot of concern about the security and control of that vital waterway. We want to do everything that we can to keep that open. That is why I think the Egyptian military is going to be critical in working with nominally pro-West regimes to insure that there is a smooth transition.
Gordon: The cabinet in the Kingdom of Jordan was dissolved by King Abdullah amid rising concerns about local protests. Is that also a reflection of the rise of Salafist/ Muslim Brotherhood elements there?
Schanzer: In Jordan, not so much, at the moment. But the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan will try to exploit this. The Islamic Action Front IAF) is the Muslim Brotherhood party in Jordan. The IAF has entered into discussions to form a new government there, because they are a strong political presence in that country. While we are not sure that they drove the protests in Jordan, again I think they are going to be negotiating with the government to try to insure that they have more political space. The main concern that I have with Jordan is that 70% of the country is Palestinian. That means that the 1994 Peace Treaty with Israel could be in jeopardy. Some people argue that Jordan is Palestine and should ultimately be a Palestinian state. However, you don’t want it established by a local Muslim brotherhood backed government.
Bates: There are peace treaties between Israel and Jordan and between Israel and Egypt. Is there potential whatever the outcome of this current popular uprising for Egypt to just walk away from that treaty and initiate hostilities against Israel? Is that possible?
Schanzer: It’s possible. More likely is that you would see the continuation of what has existed since 1992, a cold peace between Israel and Egypt. When I lived in Egypt in 2001, the #1 song on the radio in Egypt at the time in Arabic was “Ana bakrah Israel” or “I hate Israel.” That was an expression of the cold peace between the two countries. A lot of lingering hatred for Israel is reinforced through their textbooks, their movies, and their media. Most Egyptians remember the 1967 War. They even remember, their ‘victory’ that they call the 1973 October War. They remember that they didn’t exactly fare well either. After all in October, 1973, IDF forces were less than 91 kilometers from Cairo and had surrounded the entire Egyptian Third Army after crossing the Suez Canal. The last thing they want to do is to engage in additional hostilities with Israel. I think that what they’d like to do is perhaps cut off ties but again remember that that would mean the end of US aid to the Egyptian military. It would mean the end of a lot of the tourism revenue a major source of income to Egypt. There is a lot of complexity surrounding the emergence of a new Egyptian Government in a post-Mubarak era. There will be a lot of political and economic calculus they are going to have to deal with.
Bates: I can certainly see an overt resumption of hostilities as problematic for the Egyptians directly. However, what about using terrorist proxies? While the Israeli government has credited Egypt with limiting that in Gaza, they haven’t completely stopped, but rather limited the flow of weapons into Gaza along Israel’s Southern border. Could it be that whatever government may take over in Egypt would allow the flow of weapons into Gaza as Jerry alluded to earlier, having originated in Iran?
Schanzer: It’s quite possible especially if you have a Muslim Brotherhood regime that steps in. Hamas is an off shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood so there would be an automatic alliance and an allegiance between these two entities. In which case, it would not be surprising to see the resumption of, or a codification of that relationship. That would obviously be something that we would have to watch for. I know the Israelis are very nervous about that as well as the coalescing of the government of Egypt with Sudan which is very heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and an extremely dangerous regime. So there are many ways to war-game these worst case scenarios. Very few of them work out well other than a peaceful transition that is presided over by the Egyptian military. That might insure that the Brotherhood doesn’t automatically rise to power and that we level the playing field.
Gordon: Over of the last three decades, Egypt hasn’t really invested terribly much in development of the country. Certainly they have opened it up to private interests but not enough to generate jobs. Some of the resentment evidenced in this current popular uprising is reflected in the very high youth unemployment rate in the country. What is it that the world and the United States specifically should be doing in that direction?
Schanzer: I believe the Egyptians, once they open up their political system, the economy will take care of itself. I think in a country like Egypt the last thing we want to do is meddle more. We don’t need to put more boots on the ground. It’s a very proud country that doesn’t want to be overly influenced by America. I think the idea is that we should put them on the right path and allow them to develop as they should, again, rather than having that heavy footprint which I think ultimately draws hostility.
Bates: Well we don’t know yet how this is all going to play out. We will watch it very closely. Let’s just hope that whatever happens it is not an Islamic state as we allowed to occur in Iran in 1979. Gentlemen we are out of time. I wish we had more time to discuss it. We will do this again as conditions warrant. Jerry Gordon has been with me in the studio. He is the Senior Editor of the New English Review and its blog, The Iconoclast. With us by telephone from Washington D.C., Jonathan Schanzer, V.P. of Research for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Gentlemen I thank you both for coming in today and Jonathan on the phone.
Schanzer: My pleasure.
Bates: We will definitely continue this conversation about what is happening in the Middle East. It is the story to watch because the ramifications regardless of which way this happens will be huge.
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