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Interview: Barry Rubin Says Muslim Brotherhood 'Not A Moderate Group'

Muslim Brotherhood representatives hold a press conference after talks with the government in Cairo last week. Has the West underestimated their power and aims?
Muslim Brotherhood representatives hold a press conference after talks with the government in Cairo last week. Has the West underestimated their power and aims?
While the events over the past several weeks in Egypt have captivated people around the world, they are being followed particularly closely in Israel, which has enjoyed a "cold peace" with its giant Arab neighbor for nearly 30 years.

RFE/RL writer at large James Kirchick was in Israel last week for the annual Herzliya Conference, a gathering of top Israeli security officials, politicians, and journalists. There, he interviewed Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center of the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya.

Rubin is a columnist for the "Jerusalem Post," the editor of the journal "Turkish Studies," and the author or editor of over a dozen books on the Middle East, Islam, and the Arab world. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Barry Rubin
Barry Rubin:
I've never seen a story as badly covered as this story. I don't mean the color demonstrations, I mean the substance. I've never seen so many people go on television and radio and talk about a subject they know nothing about and make the most obvious factual errors on almost every point.

That the revolution is being carried out by young hip, Facebook people. How many young, hip Facebook people are there among 90 million Egyptians? Who is behind the April 6 movement? We don't have any idea....

No. 2: That the Muslim Brotherhood isn't radical, which disregards every statement made and every article written in 30 years.... Their political strategy is based on the two-stage notion: the stage of "dawa" and the stage of political action, and they would always say patience, patience. And then because they saw Mubarak was faltering and they didn't want him to hand over to his son, they saw the son as weak, they changed gears.

Now, does that changing gears have something to do with the revolution? Obviously, [there was] Tunis and the economic situation. But was there something they were campaigning for, I don't know, we hope to find out. But the Muslim Brotherhood is not a moderate group. And there are really funny stories, friends of mine in Canada and the U.K. are talking about how specific representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood have talked radical stuff for years and all of a sudden they switch gears and they've changed their rhetoric.

No. 3: The Muslim Brotherhood is weak. Well, the only other institution of any size is the army. I mean, they have hundreds of thousands of supporters. They got 20 percent in an election where it was rigged against them. So how can they be weak? Five thousand, 10,000, 20,000 Facebook-using youth are strong, but 600,000 Muslim Brotherhood [members] who got probably 30 percent-plus of the vote aren't? This is wishful thinking.

[No. 4:] That Mohamed ElBaradei is a great leader. Mohamed ElBaradei is dependent on the Muslim Brotherhood.... We all want the Egyptians to have democracy and live better off. But we wanted that for the Iranians in '78-'79. Do they feel they're better off now?

We are told by supposed great experts that the Muslim Brotherhood is not in favor of abrogating the peace treaty with Israel and the deputy head says they are. And ElBaradei says they are.... Our lives are on the line, as Israelis, but on the other hand, and in addition to that, America's entire position in the region is on the line.

So someone says America should stop supporting dictators in the Middle East. So I raise the very simple question, what dictators is America supporting? There are three monarchs; I don't consider them dictators. There's not a single dictatorship if you accept the idea that the U.S. is not supporting Egypt. But on the other side there are seven dictatorships...if you define Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco as dictatorships. My question would be: So does the U.S. want to see them overthrown also? I mean, is that what we're talking about here?

But we see the collapse of the entire American position in the region....Turkey has moved steadily toward Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, without the U.S. even trying to stop it. Lebanon is now being ruled by Hizballah. Syria has now bamboozled the U.S. into engagement and concessions without giving anything at all. Hamas has been entrenched as the government of a mini-state in Gaza without economic pressure. And now Egypt?

What do you think they're saying in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the other countries? "We can't depend on the United States, it's not a reliable ally, the Islamists are winning, we better make a deal." So it's undermining any other potential moderates, because as I say, they want to be on the winning side.

Predicting Egypt's Behavior

RFE/RL: Are Israelis generally afraid that a new government in Egypt would actually abrogate the Camp David treaty?

I don't think Israelis are afraid of anything. But having said that, let's look at very specific issues. The first issue is the decline of American credibility in the region. Undermining the confidence of moderate states is extremely dangerous for the U.S. position, so that's bad. Secondly of all, it may end up destabilizing Jordan, which is also bad.

RFE/RL: Is that a real possibility?

Not in the short run.... What would an Egyptian government do? I'm not expecting an Islamist government in Egypt, I'm expecting a radical government in Egypt, which will mix an element of Islamism and an element of radical nationalism and that can be made palatable to the army. So I think this Egypt will look at Hamas as an ally.

RFE/RL: And they'd be willing to give up their $1.5 billion in aid from the United States?

Well, who says they have to give it up. Can they maneuver...?

So they look at Hamas as an ally, and ElBaradei is on record as saying he wants to end the sanctions and limits on Gaza. So they open up the Gaza-Egypt border, all sorts of weapons flow across including more effective missiles. And what does that mean? It means that whenever Hamas decides to start shooting at Israel, Israel is going to lose more people and have more damage.

An Egyptian woman holds up a sign saying "Freedom for the honest people" at a Muslim Brotherhood protest outside a court in Cairo in 2007.
And what happens if Israeli forces go into the Gaza Strip? Now any bunch of idiots can assure us that there's absolutely no possibility of Egypt reacting militarily and there's more than a 50 percent chance they won't, but what if they do? We can't count it out.

So Gaza's a problem. Who is their other ally? The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. So they will help the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood more effectively. So I'm not saying they can overthrow the Jordanian government; they probably won't, but there's an increased danger of it.

Then we have the factor that if the Islamists are winning and the Middle East is moving toward radicalism and U.S. power is declining, why should anyone engage in a peace process? Why should anyone make peace with Israel? It's suicide. So why should you do that?

RFE/RL: Because the consequence of making peace with Israel is being overthrown by radicals?

Yeah. Why should Israel make any concessions if they can tear up the peace treaty? ElBaradei said that this was a deal made with Mubarak.... There's a whole long list of things. What if Israel made a deal with the [Palestinian Authority] and 20 years from now they say, "That was a deal with [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmud Abbas...."

Misreading Egyptian Culture

RFE/RL: So it's the precedent.

And the precedent is being set without the U.S. being upset. Now the challenge for the Egyptian regime, of course, is to find a way to do what they want without getting into real problems with the U.S. and try to keep the money.... The Turkish government has done all sorts of bad things and it has not cost them in their relationship to the U.S....

The most interesting sentence spoken since the crisis began is when Mubarak said, "Obama doesn't understand Egyptian culture." And I've given a lot of thought to what he means by that. And I think what he means is, in Western culture you show you're a nice guy you make compromises and concessions. The other side appreciates it and likes you; they make compromises and concessions and you have a nice deal.

And the model that he's saying, and it reminds of some things that King Hussein and his grandfather said, is: if you make concessions and you give away too much they demand more and become more violent and extremist. So this is the effect of this U.S. policy created by people who have no comprehension of how other cultures work.

RFE/RL: What about the argument that the reason why the Muslim Brotherhood is so powerful is because of Mubarak, because he squashed all civil society?

It's the other way around. Let's remember the history of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood was incredibly powerful; it assassinated an Egyptian prime minister. It was the most powerful organization. In 1954 they tried to assassinate [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, and they crushed them. So how can you say they were so powerful and then they were oppressed, when they were powerful, and then they were oppressed?

RFE/RL: They're the only organized force in Egypt, because of Mubarak.

The implication there is that if it had not been for Mubarak, all of these moderate and liberal forces would have developed and we don't see them develop so much because it has to do with history, culture, ideology, religion, world view. So my answer is that how come you see the same thing in every Arabic-speaking country?

'It's Not 1980 Anymore'

RFE/RL: So you're very pessimistic about the notion that democracy can take root in the near term?

No. It depends on the country. I'm very optimistic about Tunisia. I would be optimistic about Lebanon except what's happened. I'm very optimistic about Iran today because of what they've been through.... Every country in every situation is different. But the problem is Egypt is not like your best case.

Let's remember something. Islamism is not the only alternative ideology. There's an alternative ideology called radical Arab nationalism. And one of the things I'm waiting to see is will there be a party organized, a strong movement organized of people who don't want ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood to come out on top. But they would build it around radical Arab nationalism....

I've tried to project what an Egyptian election would look like. It's speculation but I hope it's informed speculation. And that's a huge question. We can't underestimate the Muslim Brotherhood people. Reporters go and interview sophisticated Egyptians and they talk about them like some rich Massachusetts Democrat or San Francisco Democrat would talk about the Tea Party. "Oh, they're stupid." But these people are not stupid. They're smart and they know how to maneuver and they know how to impose discipline.

RFE/RL: You think American policy three, four weeks ago was fine. That Mubarak had to have been supported, that he should have been kept in power indefinitely?

Yes, it was the best policy, but remember something. There is such a thing as people called Egyptians. There's a country called Egypt. It's not all up to the United States.

So people say, you've wanted U.S. policy to come out in favor of Mubarak? No, I wanted U.S. policy to shut up, try to figure out what was going on, talk to people behind the scenes, explore and then think through something. Not to announce within 72 hours, "he has to go, he has to go now, yesterday was too soon," before knowing much. It could not be more amateurish. It could not be more incompetent.... I don't trust my future to these people, and neither do the Lebanese or the Jordanians, or the Arabs or the Turks I know.

RFE/RL: Is there a consequence of American support for these unseemly regimes?

Look, it's not 1980 anymore. During the Cold War, at any given time, the U.S. supported, I mean we could make a list. At any given time, what, 40, 50, 60 dictatorships? How many does the U.S. support now? Does the U.S. support any dictatorships in South America or the Caribbean? I can't think of one. So therefore we've gone from let's say 60 or 70 dictatorships to one, three, five, I mean, whatever?

By the way, anything you can say now you can say about the shah.... I watched the Iranian revolution, and there are incredible parallels. Such as the American government making decisions based upon a faulty understanding. The feeling that we were supporting a dictator so anything we do is better than that, nothing could be worse and we found out there were worse things. No. 3, the underestimation of radical forces. People saying things like Khomeini couldn't possibly rule, Islam couldn't possibly rule, it's impossible there would be a radical regime.

And fourthly, to fail to understand that revolutionary Islamism is a strategic threat, even though not all revolutionary Islamists are allied together. And what is the picture, it's of Western retreat and defeat.... They're all saying the same thing: America is weak, America is in retreat, America can't save its friends, we are strong, we are advancing, the future belongs to us. And this is a disaster.

And I finally know what it's like, without overstating the analogy, to be alive in the 1930s and be saying, "Don't you people see what's going on," or actually, from the period 1945-48 with the Soviets. Oh yes, they took Eastern Europe because it was a buffer zone for them. You can always come up with rationales.