Foreign Policy Blogs

Egypt, Then And Now

Once again I respond to a post by FPA Israel blogger Ben Moscovitch.  Not to pick on him.  But because we disagree on many things and it seems worthwhile to me to discuss them.  Hopefully he agrees.

Ben’s most recent post criticizes Obama for drawing a parallel between the Passover story and the protest movements currently sweeping the Arab world.  The comparison is false, Ben asserts, for this reason: The Passover story is about the Jews escaping slavery and establishing a kingdom “where they began the process of creating a thriving civilization based on human rights,” while today “radical Islamists that oppress women and strip human rights are gaining traction and will likely implement their versions of Sharia law once taking power.”

Ben’s interpretation – and Obama’s statement – glosses over many key details of the Passover story.  The Israelites, after escaping from slavery, did not end slavery.  They continued and codified it.  The oppressed became the oppressors.  And as for the foreign policy they adopted, as Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason:

…[T]he character of Moses, as stated in The Bible, is the most horrid that can be imagined.  If those accounts be true, he was the wretch that first began and carried on wars on the score or on the pretence of religion; and under that mask, or that infatuation, committed the most unexampled atrocities that are to be found in the history of any nation.

As an example, Paine points to Numbers 31:13-17, in which Moses, after defeating the Midianites at war, orders his soldiers to kill all the kingdom’s male children and non-virgin females and “keep” the virgin women “alive for yourselves.”  And as I wrote last year, the story of Chanukah offers another example from Israeli history of the corrupting nature of power, for as Joseph Telushkin wrote in Jewish Literacy, “the Macabees led a successful revolt against King Antiochus’s antisemitic oppression… only to turn into oppressors of the Jews themselves.”

Additionally, according to the Book of Exodus, the process by which God freed the Jews from Egyptian slavery involved the torture of Egyptian civilians for a decidedly Machiavellian purpose.  The pharaoh had decided to free the Jews, but God intervened, hardening pharaoh’s heart to justify further plagues “for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:17).

As for Egypt today, Ben exaggerates the likelihood that radical Islamists will gain political power in a way that is detrimental to women and human rights.  Egypt’s grand mufti wrote earlier this month:

Egypt’s religious tradition is anchored in a moderate, tolerant view of Islam. We believe that Islamic law guarantees freedom of conscience and expression (within the bounds of common decency) and equal rights for women. And as head of Egypt’s agency of Islamic jurisprudence, I can assure you that the religious establishment is committed to the belief that government must be based on popular sovereignty.

The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Baltagi, and the article states:

For the first time, his organization considers its goal in Egypt the establishment of a civic not a religious state, as close to “secular” as an Islamist group might come in words. After internal wrangling, the Brothers said they could live with an elected Christian woman as president of Egypt…

The Brotherhood does wish to “implement Shariah,” the article notes, but it wouldn’t “be of the Taliban variety.”  In general, the Wall Street Journal‘s reports over the past few months suggest that though the Brotherhood has many vocal extremists, the group has an eclectic make-up.  From a February article:

“It’s never entirely clear with the Brothers,” says Josh Stacher, a political science professor at Kent State University who spent years in Egypt studying the organization. “It’s a big group, with lots of different points of view. You can find the guy always screaming about Israel and then you got the other guys who don’t care about Israel because they’re too busy worrying about raising literacy rates.”

Ed Husain, writing for Foreign Policy, elaborates on the divides of the party.  In particular, the demands of the youth wing include “greater transparency within the movement, better relations with the West, and a stronger platform for women.”  Also see James Traub’s Foreign Policy article from February.  Even if the Muslim Brotherhood does emerge as the dominant political force in Egypt (though the group is not running a candidate in the presidential election scheduled for later this year), the regime would be unlikely to be as hard-line Islamic as many in America and Israel fear.  For this reason, I agree that Obama’s Passover/Arab Spring analogy is not a favorable one, but for the opposite reason that Ben states.