The Region: Enough of 'Enough'

How a pro-democracy movement sank into purveying Islamist demagoguery.

Mubarak 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Mubarak 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
If you want to understand the Middle East's path over the last decade and why the area is stagnating, at best, or entering an era of radical Islamist upheaval, at worst, consider the tale of Egypt's Kifaya movement. This is the kind of thing Western politicians, officials, academics, and journalists must comprehend to know how things really work. Misunderstanding the Middle East is based on two bad ideas. First, when people try to graft Western history onto the region to think the advance of progress unstoppable; and second, accepting radical Arab nationalist and Islamist doctrine that everything wrong is the fault of the West and Israel. Put the two together and you get: The expected progress doesn't happen due to bad Western policy and Israel's existence. Which brings us to Kifaya. During 2004-2006 the Kifaya movement was not just Egypt's main moderate opposition force but the most important organized liberal group in the Arabic-speaking world. It began in December 2004 when participants in a small demonstration chanted they had had "enough" (kifaya) of President Hosni Mubarak's quarter-century-long rule as head of a half-century-old regime. Thus began the Egyptian Movement for Change, best known as the Kifaya group. Those involved expected imminent, dramatic change. George Isaac, the movement's coordinator, reflected what one reporter called this "delirious optimism." "The door of change is open," Isaac proclaimed "and no one can close it again. Never." But it slammed shut pretty fast. The regime was still very much in control. In the 2005 elections Kifaya did not do well. Of course, the elections were fixed, but the Muslim Brotherhood emerged with triple the vote Kifaya received. Kifaya's presidential candidate was soon in prison. The masses didn't rise up. Liberalism clearly couldn't compete with either the regime's Arab nationalism or the Brotherhood's Islamism. ISAAC NOW concluded: "Our people are naïve." How, then, to compete for these "naive" people's support? Most of Kifaya now seized the same tool the Arab nationalists and Islamists used: nationalist and religious demagoguery. In short, if you can't beat them, join them. Aside from whether or not using this weapon helped Kifaya - it didn't - the tactic strengthened all the anti-democratic concepts which held Egypt back. The fault was external, not internal. The solution was not a freer culture and society or defeat of extremist ideologies, but fighting the evil imperialists and Zionists. Yet if this is true, who needs Kifaya? Who needs internal reform? Who needs democracy? In 2006, then, the movement made a U-turn. Rather than challenge its competitors' xenophobia, Kifaya imitated it. The movement's new priority was not educational reform, fighting corruption, or expanding civil rights but demanding that Egypt renounce its peace treaty with Israel. The goal was not to prove the regime to be dictatorial and incompetent but rather unpatriotic, a lackey of Israel and America. Next came the Israel-Hizbullah war of summer 2006, when Kifaya tried to jump on the Hizbullah bandwagon. Isaac, standing next to a Muslim Brotherhood leader, told a rally: "I ask you to applaud the master, [Hizbullah leader] Hassan Nasrallah. And to denounce the one who called him reckless [Mubarak]." WHAT, THEN, was the solution - another war against Israel? Isaac even claimed, "Hizbullah's victory in Lebanon has given new life to the spirit of resistance against Mubarak." Kifaya was simply leaping backward to the Marxist Left's failed effort in the 1960s and 1970s to out-radical the Arab nationalist dictatorships. Isaac claimed the Brotherhood had moderated. "They used to raise the Qur'an during political demonstrations but now have stopped. This is Kifaya's influence." That assertion was simply nonsense. In its political program and parliamentary activity, the Brotherhood was still seeking an Islamist state governed by religious law. Kifaya was not moderating the Brotherhood; the Brotherhood was Islamizing Kifaya. Finally, Egypt's most important liberal grouping had come full circle. In early 2007 Isaac was replaced as Kifaya's coordinator by Abd al-Wahab al-Masiri, a self-styled expert on Zionism, former Al-Ahram journalist (fired by the government after signing the peace treaty with Israel), and a former philosophy professor. Masiri was author of an eight-volume Encyclopedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism. Lest one think Masiri a real rebel, Mubarak gave his encyclopedia the Cairo International Book Fair award for best scholarly work and the work was also endorsed by the Arab League. He takes a traditional leftist approach on these issues, blaming the Jews' evil behavior on history, not theology, and agreeing that the Holocaust happened but was exploited by Zionism. The book argues that Jews don't treat others as human beings and that Zionism is based on a "racist imperialistic culture." On an al-Jazeera television program, Masiri debated against secularism. In a November 2004 interview, he accused America of using ideas like democracy and human rights to seek world hegemony, interfere in other countries' affairs, and force them to follow its policy. But if Masiri sees democracy as a front for imperialism, what is he doing heading the main political organization in Egypt supposedly battling for democracy? The bottom line is that Kifaya has largely fallen apart, focuses on fighting the Arab-Israeli conflict, and embraces Islamism. Its leader is anti-democratic, anti-Western and anti-Semitic. How could its fate better illustrate the power of the Arabic-speaking world's dominant ideas and politics, or the difficulty of escaping them? Anti-Semitism, it has been said, is the socialism of fools, and patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Kifaya has fulfilled both of these maxims. Ultimately Kifaya, instead of really saying "Enough!," ended up merely giving Egypt more of the same. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya.