Cliff May

Amid a harmattan of news, analysis and commentary blowing out of Egypt, one Twitter post stands out. An Israeli tweeted:

Dear Egyptian rioters,
Please don't damage the pyramids.
We will not rebuild.
Thank you.

A good joke always contains a nugget of truth. This one contains two. The more obvious is the reminder that Egyptians and Jews have an intertwined history, going back to antiquity “when Israel was in Egypt’s land,” as the spiritual made famous by Paul Robeson phrases it, the days when the ancestors of many of today’s Israelis were slaves to pharaohs.

The less obvious implication is this: Israelis – and not just Israelis -- are concerned that Egypt’s revolution could be commandeered by radicals. Might such Islamists view the pyramids as the Taliban viewed the ancient stone Buddhas of Bamiyan – a shameful relic of the pagan past?

You can’t rule it out. In 1999, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued a decree in favor of the preservation of the statues, noting that since there no longer were any Buddhists left in Afghanistan – we’ll leave aside how that happened -- there was no danger anyone would actually worship these graven images.

But many Afghan clerics disagreed, saying that the Buddhas – even if they were just photographed by foreign tourists -- were nonetheless “against Islam.” And so, in March 2001, the Taliban used anti-aircraft guns, artillery and anti-tank mines to turn them into rubble. By then, Mullah Omar had changed his mind. "Muslims should be proud of smashing idols,” he said. “It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them.”

Six months later, Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar’s honored guest, would celebrate the worst terrorist attacks ever carried out on American soil. With him would be Ayman al-Zawahiri, then and now his top deputy, an Egyptian who had joined the Muslim Brotherhood at age 14. With bin Laden and al- Zawahiri in spirit would be Mohammad Atta, the 9/11 terrorist team leader and hijacker-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11 which he crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Also an Egyptian, Atta had joined a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organization in 1990.

Do the Egyptians demonstrating in Tahrir Square appreciate how threatening the Muslim Brotherhood is to the freedom they hope to win? Last week I was on “Politics and Power,” a serious Canadian television show, along with Dina Guirguis, a bright young Egyptian woman currently resident at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Understandably enthusiastic about Egypt’s revolution, she also was dismissive of those who “hyperventilate” about the possibility that it could be appropriated by the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups.

I really didn’t want to rain on her parade. I make no brief for Mubarak whose goal has been to create a pharaonic dynasty, not leave a democratic legacy. But I couldn’t help but recall that exactly 32 years ago, I was in Iran covering an upheaval very similar to the one now taking place in Egypt. And I knew young people very much like Dina – smart, educated in America and Europe, secular, liberal and excited about the fall of the Shah and the prospect of a new, free, democratic and prosperous Iran. They firmly believed that the Ayatollah Khomeini not only tolerated them -- he valued them. After all, the revolution succeeded because, for the first time, the radical clerics had been joined by students, merchants, socialists, communists and other groups.

Before long, Khomeini and his followers had all the levers of power in their hands. My friends were sent to the gallows and the prisons or – if they were lucky – managed to flee into exile.

No, it doesn’t have to be that way in Egypt. It helps that the Muslim Brotherhood apparently has no charismatic leader, no Egyptian Khomeini. But it’s also true, as Omar Suleiman, now Egypt’s vice president, told FBI Director Robert Mueller five years ago (according to WikiLeaks disclosures), that the Muslim Brotherhood has spawned “11 different Islamist extremist organizations, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad …” which today is a dominant faction of al-Qaeda.

So the question now is what can be done to help those who sincerely want a free, democratic and prosperous Egypt, and what can be done to prevent anti-democratic forces from hijacking whatever democratic processes may be put in place -- as the Khomeinists did in Iran in 1979, as Hamas did in Gaza in 2006 and as Hezbollah is doing in Lebanon right now with little resistance from the U.S. or Europe or, needless to say, the U.N.

If the Muslim Brotherhood is made to compete in a war of ideas, there is a decent chance it will lose. It’s one thing for the Brothers to proclaim: “Islam is the solution!” It’s another for them to explain why it’s okay if their policies scare off tourists and investors, lead to wars Egypt may not win, while deepening poverty and decreasing freedom for the vast majority of Egyptians.

Of course, Iran’s rulers, Hezbollah and Hamas do not rely on op-eds and television debates to advance their arguments. They murder those who disagree with them.

Stalin mused: “Death solves all problems -- no man, no problem.” The Muslim Brotherhood goes further. Just last year, its “Supreme Guide,” Muhammad Badi', gave a sermon in which he said it was his hope and plan to raise “a jihadi generation that pursues death, just as the enemies pursue life." As a campaign slogan, that may not be as catchy as “Hope and Change.” As a campaign strategy, it conveys distinct advantages.

And just this week, Kamal al-Halbavi, a senior member of the Brotherhood told the BBC that he hoped Egypt soon would have a government “like the Iranian government, and a good president like Mr. Ahmadinejad…”

Americans don’t have enormous leverage to influence events on the ground in Egypt -- but neither are Americans without leverage. Surely, we can and should identify those who are sincerely fighting for freedom and democracy and support them. This would begin to level the playing field. Apologists for the Muslim Brotherhood invariably talk about the organization’s wonderful “social programs,” its provision of food and medicine to the poor. Where do you think the money for all that comes from? Bake sales?

It is in Egypt’s national interest -- and America’s, and, yes, Israel’s -- that Egyptians such as Dina Guirguis achieve their dream: opening a space for freedom and democracy in the heart of the Arab and Muslim Middle East. We do them no favor by not telling them this hard truth: Their most determined opponents are on the barricades with them.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.