Learning the lessons of Egypt

by Ted Rall

I’m not much for sports analogies, but any athlete knows about the home field advantage. It’s easier to win if you play your game, not your opponent’s.

This is even more true in politics. Playing by your enemy’s rules is a mug’s game.

For whatever reason, conservatives and right-wing activists — the latter distinguishable from the former because they want to push past stodgy establishmentarianism into radical reactionism (such as fascism and its close relatives) — understand that he who makes the rules usually wins the fight. Whether it’s the aggressive redistricting of Texas voting districts engineered by Karl Rove on behalf of Republicans, or the brutalist media activism of Fox News and other Murdoch properties like The Wall Street Journal, or hiring goons to beat up election officials during the 2000 Florida recount, right-wingers get that politics is war, no Queensbury rules. Only victory matters.

Leftists — not soft, smooshy liberals but real, honest-to-a-nonexistent-God socialists and communists — get it too. Not that you could tell from recent history, at least in the United States. They’re dispirited and disorganized. Nevertheless, they remember enough Marx and Mao to remember that might makes right.

Liberals, on the other hand, can’t manage to internalize this depressing, historically proven fact.

(Columnist’s Note: At this point, if you’re a seasoned reader of opinion essays, you no doubt expect me to list examples of liberal wimpiness. Al Gore giving up in 2000. Obama not getting anything done with a Democratic Congress a few years after Bush rammed through a raft of right-wing legislation through … a Democratic Congress. Next should follow the usual exhortation to grow a pair.)

A reasonable assumption, but I’m taking a different tack this time: liberals don’t understand why others refuse to get suckered.

On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 15, NPR interviewed a “liberal intellectual” in Egypt, where the ruling military junta had ordered soldiers to slaughter hundreds of nonviolent demonstrators staging sit-ins to protest the coup d’etat that toppled the democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party. As is typical in these pieces, we were given no explanation as to why this man was picked to represent the reaction of the Egyptian public to the crackdown. Fluency in English? Friend of the reporter? Well-connected publicist? They didn’t say.

Regardless of the reason, the effect was to anoint this “liberal” as a reasonable, albeit extraordinarily well-educated, Average Joe. Whether or not NPR producers intended it, Mr. Egyptian Liberal Voice of Reason served as the voice of NPR and thus, by extension, of American liberalism.

NPR’s pet Egyptian liberal that day was “novelist Alaa al-Aswany, who protested against the Mubarak regime and criticized ousted president Mohammed Morsi during his time in office.”

Al-Aswany wasted no time discrediting himself — “No, there is no military rule in Egypt, and there will never be a military rule in Egypt. And what happened is that we are living in a transition period” — before an observation I found unintentionally illuminating: “We must have the constitution first, of course. And then after that, the election. And I believe that there would be civil elected president and elected parliament who will take over.”

What about the Muslim Brotherhood? They should participate in the democratic process, he said.

But why?

On the same network, on the same show, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations was pointing out that “it’s hard to make a credible claim if you’re an Egyptian liberal” because they supported the military coup.

“There is something called the Repression Radicalization Dynamic,” said Cook. “And one can imagine Muslim Brothers saying that they tried to play by the rules of the political game. They were shut out, shut down and now being hunted and they have no recourse but to take up arms against the state. We’ve seen that before, in fact, in Egypt, in the mid-1990s. There was a low-level insurgency which killed anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people. Throughout the Arab world we’ve seen it in places like Algeria.”

In 1992 the Front Islamique de Salut (FIS) was expected to win Algeria’s elections. The military, acting with the backing of the U.S., canceled the election, prompting the coining of the term the “American Veto.” The Americans also effectively vetoed Hamas’ win of fair elections in Gaza in 2006.

From Algeria to Gaza to Egypt, the message to Islamists is clear: Don’t follow the West’s rules. Electoral democracy is for them, not for you.

If you play the West’s game, if you work within their system, they’ll do whatever it takes, including cheating, to prevent you from winning. If you win anyway, they’ll overthrow you in a coup. And if you demonstrate — peacefully, nonviolently, just the way they tell you you’re supposed to, they’ll shoot you like dogs.

I’m pretty sure Islamists — and other radicals who seek political power — have learned their lesson. Goodbye ballot boxes, hello guns.

Liberals, on the other hand, clearly haven’t. Not only do they themselves insist on accepting the rhetorical framework of the right, they expect everyone else to do so as well.

Of course, there may well be a simple if unpleasant explanation for that. Stylistic differences (such as George W. Bush vs. Barack Obama) aside, when push comes to shove, liberals side with authoritarianism — even though the autocrats in question plan to get rid of them sooner or later — over their leftist “allies.” We’ve seen it over and over, from Germany in 1848 to Washington in 2013, where a liberal president presides over an empire of torture camps, fleets of killer robot planes and a police state that makes East Germany’s Stasi look penny ante.

Liberals are right-wing.

Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. Go there to join the Ted Rall Subscription Service and receive all of Ted’s cartoons and columns by email. © 2013 Ted Rall