morsi

President of Egypt Mohamed Morsi

This diary is a preliminary attempt to specify a general conviction of mine that the way forward in the Middle and North Africa region (MENA) is through cooperation between the “democratic” secular movements and the Moderate Islamist movements (Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, and Hamas in occupied Palestine), and that this understanding is something U.S. progressives should support.

The title refers to one possible element of the specification. Given that the idea of a two-state solution, meaning Israel and a secular Palestine has become a mere fantasy that no longer has a realistic possibility of implementation, perhaps Fatah and Hamas can finally realize that it is vital for them to settle their differences, and come to an understanding on international issues to struggle for, of which one element might be a new two-state proposal.

To begin, the most widespread countervailing position is that the secular movements are to be supported against anything smacking of “Islamism.” Probably the representative of this position who is most respected among progressives is Juan Cole, who in a blog posted earlier this month speaks approvingly of some Muslims teaming up with secular forces to oppose “the Muslim religious Right” (a term he prefers to “Islamists” or “Fundamentalists”). He explicitly includes in this category the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jama’at-i Islami in Bangladesh. He appears to make no distinction between these entities, on the one hand, and the Salafists, the Taliban, and (I suppose) al-Qaeda, on the other.

This tendency also gains support among people of good will from the circumstance that the U.S. government for reasons of its own (probably to assist the containment of Iran) more or less supports the current governments of Tunisia and Egypt that are religiously based (Sunni, whereas Iran follows Shi’a), making it easy to assume that these governments are also reactionary.

But here I must observe that there is no evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood has attacked female children for attempting to go to school, or destroyed monuments sacred to the Sufi form of Islam, or, indeed, hurtled hijacked airplanes into densely occupied buildings. In fact at least the published principles of the MB state that non-Muslims in the lands that it governs have the right to their own customs, marriage rites and even legal systems. (All this goes back to the Qur’an, which is clear that other “people of the Book” have rights.) If someone has evidence that Egypt’s President Morsi has in practice violated these principles, then by all means bring it forth, but absent that throwing the MB into the same bag as Salafism won’t wash. (Here I’m aware that the opposition in Tunisia has rhetorically accused Ennahda of the assassination of Chokri Belaid, but it has produced no facts to this effect. And of course there have been attempts in the West to paint the MB as simply a terrorist organization, such as a position paper by the Investigative Report on Terrorism, but consider the source.)

It is fairly clear that opposition to government by the MB in Egypt or the Ennahda Party in Tunisia or Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where it is not simply imperialist in origin like the stance applied by the U.S., Israel and the European Union to Hamas, is based on the idea that secular democracy is the best form of government at all times and places. What this position fails to understand is that the citizens of countries like Egypt and Tunisia who are alive today have known only two forms of government in practice with which to compare the third that is enshrined in their culture and that their new governments now wish to practice. These two are namely colonial rule from England or France and the corrupt distortions of secular democracy that were left in place when these powers withdrew.

That is to say, the only form of government the citizens of these countries know that is not completely discredited in their eyes is what is espoused by entities like the MB. That is why they gave majorities to parties espousing Islam in the recent elections. It is true that the resulting form of government is based on Shari’a law and that the notion of a separation between church and state is completely alien to it. But here it is well to note that in countries where such separation is the theory, in practice there are phenomena like State boards in the U.S. demanding that “creationist science” be taught along with evolution in the schools, or laws against Muslim dress in French schools.

In this situation, it is not for us to say to the people of Tunisia or Egypt that a religion-based government is backward in this day and age however functional it may have been in Islam’s glory days in the Middle Ages, and that they must accept a Western-style secular government. Does anyone doubt that if such a government there, say, forbade bowing toward Mecca inside government buildings, it would not be obeyed? And if widespread unrest resulted, as would be likely, does anyone doubt that a new dictatorship would impose itself in one way or another?

Rather, it behooves Western progressives to encourage the parties to back off from their current confrontations and find ways to work together for the good of their peoples. This might be less difficult in Tunisia, where Ennahda has agreed to a draft constitution (to be finalized before a vote on it in April) in which the religious character of the state is relatively muted, and where it has ceded control of the interior, justice and foreign ministries to independents in the interim coalition government approved on March 13.

In Egypt, to be sure, the obstacles are grave. The leading opposition figure, Mohamed El-Baradei, has refused any accommodation with President Morsi; for example, he has spearheaded a boycott of upcoming parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, for his part Morsi is threatening a crackdown on opposition protests, such as at the MB Cairo headquarters Friday, including legal action against politicians supporting them. The situation could well result in another military takeover and re-establishment of the supporters of Mubarak.

And then there is Palestine, the most difficult situation of all, since the people there have been under occupation by the U.S.-backed Israeli regime virtually continuously in one area of the land or another since the establishment of Israel in 1947, although the most discussed phase has been the post-1967 occupation of the West Bank, with the Gaza Strip also initially occupied but eventually “only” placed under blockade. The situation is difficult for the Palestinians in that their daily lives are compromised in all sorts of ways. Moreover, it is difficult for U.S. citizens to discuss in a meaningful way because our government has labelled one key constituency which must be part of any real solution “terrorist” and has passed laws against aiding it in any “material” way, whatever that means.

As to the merits of the “terrorist” charge, it appears to mean that Hamas does not fight Israel with the normal weapons of war aimed at uniformed soldiers. What is usually left out of the discussion is the point that it is not allowed such weapons and cannot reach such soldiers with the weapons it does have. That is to say, the charge has the status of rhetoric.

As to the pragmatic matter that one can be materially attacked by the government for going too far (however that is defined) in the direction of treating Hamas as a legitimate resistance group, I myself am an elderly person so that any risk I run can at worst only shorten the time that remains to me by a bit. I would advise younger people, however, to be careful in what they say or do regarding Hamas. The government in its current incarnation has after all shown itself to be quite ruthless in going after people who expose its misdeeds even in its previous incarnation, such as with those associated with Wikileaks.

Hamas represents over a million people in the Gaza Strip and is supported by a goodly number of West Bank residents as well. In discussing possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the U.S. government of course ignores Hamas, but that is because it is not interested in a true peace, only in satisfying the Israeli lobby in Washington while simultaneously attempting to pacify adverse world opinion. Serious people such as U.S. progressives cannot emulate this approach. We must encourage the main Palestinian parties, namely Hamas and Fatah, to negotiate their differences in order to present a united front against the occupation. There have indeed been meetings between them, with such results as the February, 2012 Doha Agreement, which, to be sure, ran into problems subsequently, although efforts to further the reconciliation continue, apparently with the principal obstacle being their differing approaches to dealing with Israel.

These reconciliation efforts must now be seen as urgent after a pro-settler party became essentially one-third of the Israeli government in the recent elections, and after Barack Obama during his visit last week retrenched into the attitude that the (non-Hamas) Palestinians can only be supported to the extent that they drop their demand that the settlements cease.

One must hope that the efforts will eventually come to fruition, in which case there will be a single Palestinian posture toward Israel. What will it look like? Since the current Hamas position is that there should be no Israel and therefore no good relations with the Israel that exists, and the current Fatah position is to seek accommodation with that Israel, or with a Israel retracted into something like the pre-1967 borders. I imagine that the eventual position will be somewhere in between, that is, to seek accommodation with an Israel retracted into a smaller area than what it occupied pre-1967.

At this point you may well laugh, saying that Israel is not even going to retract into its pre-1967 borders (Netanyahu has said as much), much less into an even smaller area. You would be right — but only under the assumption that the balance of power will still be what it is today, especially including hard U.S. support for Israel, when the Palestinian parties reach their agreement.

But I question that. People here are rumbling, about gun control, about endless war, about police excesses in minority communities, and about a host of other issues. I think it is only a matter of time before they say that the $200 billion or so that the U.S. has given to Israel in aid since its founding is enough, especially given our budget difficulties, and that the Israel lobby notwithstanding.  It is time to call a halt to support for a regime that violates humanitarian principles and international law alike on a daily basis, support which only deepens the distance of the United States from the respect of people of good will all over the world.

Interesting times lie ahead, both in MENA and here.

Photo by European External Action Service released under Creative Commons License