Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Egypt's Islamist Presidential Candidates/ Benzion and Binyamin Netanyahu

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Update from AIJAC

May 07, 2012
Number 05/12 #02

This Update contains two valuable pieces on the candidates for the highly important Egyptian Presidential  election (Barry Rubin had an excellent analysis of just how important here), as well as one of the many interesting pieces being written about the legacy of Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu, who died last week age 102.

First up is a profile of Abdel Monem Abouel Fotouh, who is being described as a "liberal Islamist" by many outlets. Eric Trager, an expert on Egyptian politics from the Washington Institute for Near East confronts these beliefs, pointing out that while Fatouh has expressed some "moderate" beliefs on political inclusion - that is, allowing women and Christians to run for political office - this basically is the extent of his moderation. Trager notes that such "moderation" had nothing to do with Fotouh's split with the Muslim Brotherhood, and on both foreign policy and his domestic vision for Egypt, he is conventionally Islamist and likely to be extremely problematic for both Egyptians and Egypt's foreign interlocuters. For Trager's profile of Fatouh in full, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Trager also did a profile of the other major Islamist candidate still in the Egyptian Presidential contest - the Muslim Brotherhood's official candidate, Mohamed Morsi. Morsi, he notes, is essentially a relatively colourless functionary known for two things - his negotiations on the Brotherhood's behalf with the Egyptian security services under Mubarak, and his promotion of rigid Orthodoxy within the Brotherhood itself. He notes that Morsi remains the most extreme Islamist still in the race, and even if he does not win, will play a major role in Egyptian politics pushing rigid Islamism for the foreseeable future thanks to his leadership of the Brotherhood's plurality in the Egyptian parliament. For the rest of Trager's analysis of Morsi, CLICK HERE. A good look at the ruling miltary's attitude toward the third major candidate, former Foreign Minister Amr Mousa, comes from former Egyptian activist turned academic analyst Khairi Abaza.

Finally, much is being written about the death of Benzion Netanyahu, who was both a renowned historian and a major activist in pre-1948 Zionism, as well as the father of both the current Israeli PM and his brother Yonathan, the hero of Entebbe in 1976. In the piece included here, the always insightful Israeli scholar and author Yossi Klein Halevi looks in particular at the political legacy that Benzion seems to have taught Binyamin - a particular approach to the world. According to Halevi, that message - rooted in both the experience of the Holocaust and Benzion's own studies of the Spanish Inquisition  - can be summed up as "don't be a fool"; meaning don't give into wishful thinking or self-deception. For more of Halevi's discussion of how this "politics of realism" affect the younger Netanyahu vis-a-vis both the Palestinians and Iran, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, an excellent piece on the significance of Benzion Netanyahu's scholarship is here, more on his relationship with Bibi is here and here, while Jonathan Spyer discusses his place within the "revisionist " and Likud political camps within Israel. Other interesting tidbits about the man's activism in the 1940s are here, here and here.

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The American Media Gets an Egyptian Presidential Candidate All Wrong

 Eric Trager
   
The New Republic, May 3, 2012 | 12:00 am

Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Monem Abouel Fotouh was a leading force in the militant Islamist student movements of the 1970s; one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s point men for aiding the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980s; and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Office for twenty-two years. It should not have come as a surprise that he has earned the endorsement of Egypt’s most influential Salafist organizations, al-Dawa al-Salafiyya and its political arm, the Nour Party, as well as the backing of U.S.-designated terrorist organization al-Gama’a al-Islamiya

But American media has had a tough time acknowledging the dispiriting truth that Egypt’s presidential race is now a contest between theocratic Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and Abouel Fotouh on the one hand, and autocratic former Mubarak regime officials such as Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq on the other. Instead, the country’s major newspapers have gone out of their way to designate a hero. The Wall Street Journal thus whitewashed Abouel Fotouh as “relatively liberal,” while The New York Times dubbed him a “liberal” outright. Any judicious reading of Abouel Fotouh’s record would contradict these characterizations.

Abouel Fotouh’s reputation as a “liberal Islamist” is largely the product of his views on political inclusion. As he notes in his memoirs, he has long advocated for the right of women to run for political office, and he similarly supports Christians’ right to run for president. These stances put him at odds with his more fundamentalist colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood, including Brotherhood presidential candidate Morsi, and it was one of the reasons for his ouster from the organization’s Guidance Office in 2009.

But it was not the primary reason. As Abouel Fotouh told me during a March 2011 interview, his disagreements with the other Guidance Office members were mostly about the organization’s dictatorial internal structure, which he wanted to reform by instituting term limits. “I left because I pushed for an amendment that people can only stay in the Guidance Office for eight years, and I asked thirteen other members to [leave the Guidance Office] as well,” he said. “But they refused.” Yet despite his falling out with the Brotherhood’s brass over this administrative matter, Abouel Fotouh remained quite committed to the organization: he was a member of the Brotherhood’s Shura Committee—its 100-member policy-making body—for another year-and-a-half, and was among the Brotherhood’s most visible advocates to the international community during the January 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak. His ultimate departure from the Brotherhood in the summer of 2011 was similarly not because of ideological disagreements, but strategic ones: the Brotherhood leadership vowed not to nominate a presidential candidate, but the ambitious Abouel Fotouh declared his candidacy anyway.

Indeed, Abouel Fotouh’s exit from the Muslim Brotherhood hardly implies his moderation, and he has continued to embrace the Brotherhood’s core aim of establishing a sharia-based legal system. In this vein, his presidential platform calls for “the application of sharia law as a comprehensive concept for achieving the fundamental interests of the people,” which include ending poverty, unemployment, corruption, and “deviance.”

Like the Muslim Brotherhood, Abouel Fotouh embraces an interpretive “maqasid” approach to sharia, which places a rhetorical emphasis on broader aims such as justice and compassion. But also like his colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood, Abouel Fotouh’s progressive façade frequently slips. In this vein, when military vehicles ran over a Christian-led demonstration outside of Egypt’s state-run media building on October 9, killing 28 people, Abouel Fotouh blamed the Christians for choosing “the wrong place and the wrong time” to demand their rights. He further stated that the massacre advanced the “foreign and Zionist aims of igniting sectarian strife in Egypt.” Abouel Fotouh’s insensitive response to the killing of Christians was hardly out of character. When the U.S. released a report in 2007 criticizing the Mubarak regime’s treatment of Copts, Abouel Fotouh called it “divorced from reality,” and belittled anti-Coptic discrimination by claiming that anti-Muslim discrimination in the West was worse.

Meanwhile, while reaching out to Salafists on the campaign trail, he qualified his prior support for non-Muslims running for president. “It’s the right of any faction, Islamist or non-Islamist, to nominate, or not nominate [candidates]—it’s up to them,” he said in a recent interview on Salafist satellite television. “But Egypt cannot have a president who does not have an Islamist orientation. The Egyptian people expressed this in the parliamentary elections, and in other elections.”

On foreign policy, Abouel Fotouh similarly echoes the views of Brotherhood hardliners. For starters, he’s a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. “I don’t believe it was jihadists,” he told me, when I asked him whether he thought that al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11. “It was too big an operation. … They didn’t bring this crime before the U.S. justice system until now. Why? Because it’s part of a conspiracy.” He has also refuses to recognize Israel, supports ending gas sales to Israel, and has indicated that he would either end or amend the Camp David Accords, which he says were “imposed” on Egyptians.

Of course, it is impossible to know whether Abouel Fotouh will be elected; that decision ultimately rests with the Egyptian people. But it is the responsibility of the media in the United States to prepare the American public for what may be in store. If Abouel Fotouh is elected, he is liable to create a host of challenges for the United States, as well as for many Egyptians. Downplaying those challenges by pretending a longtime Islamist is actually a progressive liberal will do absolutely nothing to solve them.

Eric Trager is the Ira Weiner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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Meet the Islamist Political Fixer Who Could Be Egypt’s Next President

 Eric Trager
   
The New Republic, April 27, 2012 | 12:00 am

When Egypt’s Presidential Elections Commission disqualified Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater from the upcoming elections last week, the Brotherhood was angered, but not surprised. Egyptian law bans criminal convicts from running for president, and though al-Shater’s 2007 conviction for belonging to an “illegal organization”—namely, the Brotherhood— was highly politicized, the Brotherhood knew that it could sink al-Shater’s candidacy nonetheless. It thus nominated a last-minute backup: former parliamentarian Mohamed Morsi, who has now replaced al-Shater as the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate.

Morsi’s sudden emergence as the Muslim Brotherhood’s standard-bearer represents a tremendous change in his role within the organization. For much of the past decade, Morsi has been a behind-the-scenes player, performing two key functions that were vital to the Brotherhood’s external security and internal discipline.

First, for the final four years of Hosni Mubarak’s reign, Morsi was the primary point-of-contact for State Security within the Muslim Brotherhood. State Security was the repressive domestic security apparatus through which the Mubarak regime monitored and infiltrated opposition groups, and Morsi negotiated with State Security to ensure the Brotherhood’s participation in various political endeavors, such as parliamentary elections. “Mohamed Morsi has very good security relations,” former deputy supreme guide Mohamed Habib told me during a March 2011 interview. “State Security likes a connection point who has the confidence of various Brothers, and [top Brotherhood leaders] pushed for him.” Indeed, Brotherhood leaders trusted Morsi because they viewed him as ideologically rigid, and therefore unlikely to concede too much to the regime during negotiations. Brotherhood leaders also believed that Morsi’s longtime political experience, including his membership in the Brotherhood’s political division since 1992 and leadership of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc from 2000 to 2005, made him an effective negotiator.

Interestingly, Morsi inherited this role from Khairat al-Shater, the man whom he recently replaced as the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate. Prior to the 2005 parliamentary elections, Morsi assisted al-Shater in negotiating with the regime over the number of candidates that the Brotherhood would run. When the Brotherhood won 88 of 454 total seats in parliament—including a majority of the seats that they contested—the regime was infuriated, and it is believed that its subsequent prosecution of al-Shater was, in part, a punishment for his failure to reduce sufficiently the number of Brotherhood candidacies. Following al-Shater’s conviction, Morsi became the Brotherhood’s sole liaison to State Security.

Morsi’s willingness, in the years afterwards, to negotiate with a Mubarak regime that brutally repressed the Brotherhood for decades is a testament to the organization’s political gradualism during that time. “Our program is a long-term one, not a short-term one,” Morsi told me during an August 2010 interview. “If we are rushing things, then I don’t think that this leads to a real stable position.” Indeed, under Mubarak, the organization’s primary aim was survival—which is why it frequently coordinated its activities with the regime, and typically refused to join the various protest movements that emerged during the waning years of Mubarak’s rule. “We never participate in some randomness movements before,” Morsi told me in his stilted English. The Brotherhood thus initially refused to participate in the January 2011 mass demonstrations that ultimately toppled Mubarak. And despite having been arrested as the revolt reached its climax, Morsi participated in early February negotiations with then-vice-president Omar Suleiman that, unsuccessfully, aimed to end the protests.

Morsi’s second function within the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership was similarly critical to the Brotherhood’s integrity. He was, in the words of former Brotherhood youth Abdel Monem al-Mahmoud, “an icon of the extremists in the Muslim Brotherhood”—someone who not only pushed the Brotherhood to adopt a more extreme agenda, but advocated for purging those leaders who disagreed with it.

In this vein, Morsi led the Brotherhood’s 2007 efforts to draft a political platform that included provisions that restricted the Egyptian presidency to Muslim men and established a council of Islamic scholars to advise the parliament on sharia-compliant legislation. When young Brotherhood bloggers objected to these provisions, Morsi reprimanded them. Two years later, Morsi led the push to oust Mohamed Habib and Abdel Monem Abouel Fotouh from the Guidance Office, after both Brotherhood leaders voiced their disagreement with the political platform. “Habib left the Guidance Office because of an unnatural situation,” Brotherhood parliamentarian Mohamed al-Beltagi told me in a 2011 interview. “The members who ran for internal election … chose some people who are close to each other, to ensure unity regardless of efficiency. … This was for the benefit of harmony in the Guidance Office.”

Since Mubarak’s ouster last February, Morsi has continued playing these roles as the chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which the Brotherhood established in April 2011. Indeed, Morsi has essentially remained the Brotherhood’s key intermediary with the regime. He has negotiated with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on a variety of matters, including the format and timing of the parliamentary elections, as well as ending episodes of renewed mass protests.

He has also used his continued influence within the Brotherhood to ensure that the organization’s rank-and-file are committed exclusively to the FJP. In this vein, when younger Brotherhood leaders opposed the establishment of the FJP and began forming their own youth-oriented party, Morsi ordered them to back down. “There are people who think they’re the temple guards, and he’s one of them,” Brotherhood youth leader Islam Lotfy told me shortly after last year’s revolt. “He cares a lot about the system, more than the people.” In June 2011, Lotfy and his colleagues formed the Egyptian Current Party, and were subsequently banished from the Brotherhood. Similarly, when Abouel Fotouh, whom Morsi ousted from the Guidance Office in 2009, declared his presidential candidacy against the Brotherhood’s wishes, he and his supporters were exiled.

With Morsi now in the spotlight as the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, the nature of his previous work within the Brotherhood could have a mixed effect on his electoral prospects. While the Brotherhood’s members and supporters are widely expected to vote for him, the vote of Egyptian Salafists—whose candidates won nearly a quarter of the parliamentary vote—remains up for grabs. (The Salafists’ presumed candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, was disqualified last week when it was discovered that his mother was an American citizen.) On the one hand, Morsi’s doctrinal rigidity—for example, his stubborn refusal to entertain the notion of a Christian presidential candidate—could appeal to Salafists, who embrace a more fundamentalist version of Islam. Morsi is, after all, the most conservative Islamist still in the race.

On the other hand, his status as the Brotherhood’s quintessential “organization man” could alienate Salafists, who view the Brotherhood’s intricate national structure as superfluous to their broader aim of living according to a strict interpretation of the sharia. Morsi’s behavior as FJP chair has further turned off Salafist political leaders, who defected from the FJP’s electoral coalition when Morsi reserved 40 percent of the coalitions candidacies for the FJP, thereby limiting Salafist candidacies.

No matter how he fares in the presidential race, however, Morsi will likely remain a fixture in Egyptian politics for years to come. His leadership of the FJP, which holds plurality-control of the parliament, will enable him to continue steering the Brotherhood’s political trajectory towards the theocratic far-right. His commitment to the organization’s internal discipline will mitigate against a push by younger members to embrace compromise with other political factions. And his longtime relationship with Egyptian security authorities will make him one of the most important figures for fending off political pressure from the Egyptian military.

Still, Morsi’s emergence as the Brotherhood’s standard-bearer should be taken as an indicator of the organization’s modus operandi. It is internally dictatorial, ideologically intolerant, and—perhaps most importantly—only willing to embrace political gradualism when pressured by stronger authorities.

Eric Trager is the Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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Bibi’s Political Inheritance

What remains of Revisionist Zionism, the ideology of the late Benzion Netanyahu, is its 11th commandment: Don’t be a fool.


By Yossi Klein Halevi
 

Tablet Magazine, May 1

Benzion Netanyahu, scholar of the Inquisition, secretary to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and father of Bibi, was the last of the purist Revisionist Zionists. He carried Revisionism’s bitter battles against the Zionist left to the end of his 102 years. And his complicated relationship with his son tells the story of the successes and failures of the Revisionist movement.

Through the 1930s and ’40s, Revisionist and left-wing Zionists argued vehemently about the nature of the future state and how to create it. Labor Zionists were socialists, Revisionists capitalists. Labor cooperated with the British mandate; the Revisionists revolted. And Labor accepted the division of the land of Israel, while Revisionists opposed every partition plan, including the first partition in 1922, which created the Kingdom of Jordan. The future state, argued Jabotinsky, would need ample borders in which to accommodate millions of future Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

The most profound debate between Revisionism and Labor concerned the nature of the Zionist transformation of the Jew. All Zionists agreed that the Jewish character had been distorted by exile; the question was what aspects of that personality needed to be changed. Labor advocated a total overhaul: a secular socialist Jew, freed of piety and economic marginality, a farmer and a worker. Revisionism, though, had only one demand on the new Jew: Become a soldier. Jabotinsky didn’t care whether Jews were Orthodox or atheist, workers or businessmen—so long as they knew how to defend themselves.

A key component to self-defense is the ability to perceive threat. And with the rise of Nazism, Revisionism’s insistence on Jewish power became a war against Jewish complacency and self-delusion. In speeches across Eastern Europe, Jabotinsky urged young Jews to learn to shoot and prepare to get out. Es Brent a fire, he warned, a fire is burning. Destroy the exile before the exile destroys you. Jabotinsky’s opponents mocked him as a fear-monger.

Of all the divides separating Revisionism and Labor, the failure of the mainstream Zionist movement to sense the approaching abyss and attempt to rescue Europe’s Jews remained perhaps the most bitter. Zionism, the antidote to Jewish wishful thinking, had, under Labor, been guilty of that worst Diaspora character flaw, and at the worst moment in Jewish history.

In the early years of the state, all that seemed left for Revisionism to fight over was the past. Revisionism’s most passionate issue became opposition to German reparations. The fight over partition, after all, had apparently been resolved in Labor’s favor. Revisionists kept the memory of both banks of the Jordan alive more as nostalgia than realistic platform. They sang the anthem, “Both banks of the Jordan/ this one is ours, the other too,” and members of Betar, the Revisionist youth movement, wore on their navy blue uniforms a patch of the old dream map, of both banks of the Jordan. This wasn’t a map of Israel’s future, but a memory of what could have been had the Jews listened to Jabotinsky, the borders of thwarted rescue.

What Revisionism retained most urgently wasn’t so much ideology but sensibility. Jewish naivete, Revisionists insisted, had been the indispensable partner of the Final Solution. That is what kept the victims from listening to Jabotinsky and fleeing in time. The Nazis played on Jewish hope, reassuring their victims through a series of linguistic deceptions that ended with the showers. What remained of Revisionism was its 11th commandment: Don’t be a fool.

Then came the Six Day War. Suddenly territorial maximalism was relevant again. The new 1967 borders weren’t the same borders Revisionists had dreamed of, but they were close enough. History had compensated the Jews for its territorial losses. Not one inch, vowed Jabotinsky’s heir, Menachem Begin.

Ten years later, in 1977, came the moment the Revisionists had longed for and almost despaired would ever come. After 29 years in opposition—along with two decades in opposition before statehood—Begin finally rose to power.

And then, almost immediately, came the shattering. When Begin agreed to cede all of Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt, one of his strongest critics from the right was Benzion Netanyahu. Yet Begin understood what the right-wing academic did not: that the actual wielding of power brought responsibility, a choice between values. Given the possibility of neutralizing the enmity of Israel’s most powerful neighbor, Begin opted for peace over land. For Benzion, though, power remained abstract, and ideology absolute.

But the cruelest blow to Benzion came from his son. A political rift between them opened during the election campaign of 1996, when Bibi declared that he would accept the Oslo Accords, while insisting on Palestinian reciprocity. Benzion was outraged. Bibi tried to explain that his endorsement of Oslo was only tactical. Benzion countered: What begins as tactical ends in a betrayal of principle.

Benzion was right. In his second term Bibi became the first Likud leader to accept the principle of a two-state solution, the possible withdrawal from the second bank of the Jordan. While most of the international community missed the significance of Bibi’s historic concession, his father surely did not. Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, Revisionist ideology was buried in a state funeral. Yet even as he rejected the practicality of his father’s territorial maximalism, Bibi remained faithful to his father’s sensibility.

What Aharon Appelfeld has done in fiction, Benzion Netanyahu did in scholarship: dissect the consequences of Jewish naivete. Benzion’s fascination with medieval Spain wasn’t based only on the behavior of the victimizers but of the victims. He not only drew a line connecting what he defined as the racial anti-Semitism of the Inquisition with Nazism, but implicitly drew a line between the Jews who saw medieval Spain as their golden land and the Jews who saw modern Germany as their new Zion.

It is precisely that dread of Jewish self-deception that has defined the politics of Benzion’s son. Don’t believe the Palestinian leaders when they speak about peace in English and jihad in Arabic, Prime Minister Netanyahu warned in his first term. And do believe the mullahs when they threaten to destroy the Jewish state, he now warns in his second term.

The war between the heirs of Labor and the heirs of Revisionism is no longer over ideology, but sensibility. Labor won the debate over partition: A strong majority of Israelis backs a two-state solution. Yet that same majority wants the Labor ideology of partition to be implemented by the Revisionist sensibility of wariness. And that is what Benzion’s son has committed himself to do. Not to preserve greater Israel at all cost, but to negotiate a safe partition if that becomes possible. A partition without wishful thinking.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has forever changed Israel’s political map and, in so doing, helped prepare the way for an eventual agreement with the Palestinians. That is not the victory Benzion hoped for. But it is, in its painful way, a vindication of the politics of realism he taught his son.

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