On Egypt and elsewhere: The Left’s fatal flaw

First of all, I’ve changed my mind about the point in my Saturday post that shocked people and got the most attention – that if I’d known last February that Islamists were going to democratically take over Egypt, I would have supported Mubarak instead of the protesters. Prodded to reconsider by a couple of commenters, I saw that this would have meant siding with the dictator’s killers and torturers against a crowd of people risking their lives for freedom. No way.  So this is what I wrote in the comments on my post, and in the comments on the pseudonymous R.W. Al-Thahabi’s eloquent response yesterday:

(L)et’s say that instead of believing, as I did, that the Islamists would NOT become the dominant power in Egypt, I’d believed that they would. If that’s what I’d believed, I could not have cheered the protesters’ fight like I did. I would have seen them instead as heroic people who ultimately, inadvertently were helping some real dangerous forces gain power – forces potentially even worse for them than Mubarak, and obviously much worse than Mubarak for me and my country, which is a major concern of mine. This is a really tough question, because the battle came down to whether Mubarak’s goons could drive the protesters out of Tahrir Square, or whether they could hold it. And finally, I could not have sided with those trying to drive them from the square, and I would have sided with the protesters – even if I’d believed it would lead to an Islamist takeover. I would have supported the protesters IN THE HOPE THAT I WOULD BE PROVEN WRONG, while at the same time warning of the power of the Islamists.

So much for that. The rest of what I wrote on Saturday, the day the election results came in, still stands: the combined 70% vote for the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more radical Al-Nour is a terrible development. And now I want to talk about some of the things Lisa Goldman, my colleague and cyberpal, wrote in her reproachful (but collegial) response to my original post. Titled “Egypt’s elections are none of Israel’s business,” it’s an illustration of a very fundamental problem on the democratic Left, and it reminds me why, on the international spectrum, I consider myself a liberal and not a leftist.

I anticipated that my post was going to make waves in +972’s pool (even without a retrospective endorsement of Mubarak). I wrote it because the Left’s silence (and mine) on the rise of the Islamists in Egypt had, after these election results, finally become too loud not to hear. I didn’t want to write about what was happening in post-Mubarak Egypt before because I didn’t want admit that on such a momentous, historic issue, I’d been wrong, outspokenly wrong, in anticipating that while the Islamists would likely have a role in the new Egypt, they wouldn’t dominate it. And not only had I been wrong, the right-wingers and cynics had been right. (Again, this was still no reason to side with the tyrant’s guns and whips against the protesters for democracy, which the right-wingers and cynics, at least in this country, did.)

But for the democratic Left, there was another reason for silence: a belief that they, as mainly privileged people from countries with a history of exploiting the “have-nots” of the world, don’t have the right to criticize them. In the Left’s view, the Egyptian election wasn’t  only none of Israel’s business, it was none of America’s business, or Europe’s business, or Australia’s, or Canada’s, either. People who come from rich countries, white countries, exploiter countries, aren’t allowed to open their mouths to the “Third World,” except if it’s to cheer.

This is a core political problem for people of the democratic Left (with whom I could definitely form a coalition, though not a party). The Left’s whole ideology calls for breaking down the oppressor-oppressed relationship, to be one with the oppressed, which is easy enough when the oppressed are secular reformers or nationalists. But when they’re the Muslim Brotherhood and, even worse, Al-Nour? Then it’s a real awkward situation. A leftist can’t cheer them – but he’s not allowed to boo. If he does, his partnership with the oppressed, his ideology, comes apart. So the usual response, such as with post-Mubarak Egypt, is a self-imposed, ideological silence.

Lisa’s post was the second time I’d come across this attitude in three days. Last Friday some of us from +972 were in East Jerusalem getting a tour from Ir Amim, a great NGO that fights against what Israel’s doing to Palestinians in the capital. After a while, I went up to the Israeli woman leading us and said, “Why don’t the Palestinians in East Jerusalem vote in municipal elections? With their numbers, they’d have a lot of power to go up against all this.” (With very few exceptions, East Jerusalem Palestinians boycott municipal elections by edict from the powers-that-be in Ramallah, who say that voting in Jerusalem elections would amount to recognizing Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian capital. I disagree; it would help the Palestinian national cause if they voted in municipal elections and fought against the Judaizing of Jerusalem’s eastside, and at least some Palestinians agree.)

The woman from Ir Amim said to me: “It’s not my place to tell the Palestinians what to do.” Just offering a dissenting opinion, even the most well-intentioned one,  is “telling them what to do.”

I’ve seen this since I was a “child of the 60s” in California. We on the Left started out supporting Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, the easiest thing on earth, but a few years later we felt ideologically bound to silence when the Black Panthers were glorifying the murder of cops.

It grows out of guilt, and there’s nothing wrong at all about Western leftists and Western liberals like me feeling guilty. Whites in America really do have reason to feel guilty over their country’s historic treatment of blacks, Israeli Jews absolutely have reason to feel guilty over our country’s ongoing treatment of Palestinians. As for Egypt, Israel did at least tacitly collude in Mubarak’s tyranny; it figured the only alternative to him was the Islamists, so it supported whatever he had to do to keep them at bay.

All of us “haves” have plenty good reason to feel guilty. But you can’t build your whole political relationship with the “have-nots” around that guilt, especially when your commitment to them is the very heart of your politics, and when you also believe in free thought and expression – but this is what the democratic Left has done. And it didn’t start with Egypt, and it isn’t limited to leftists in Israel.

I knew all along that whoever came after Mubarak would have a large bone to pick with Israel, and I figured that the Muslim Brotherhood would get a share of power, yet I supported the protesters whole-heartedly. I didn’t, however, expect that the Muslim Brotherhood would be the relative moderate in a gigantic Islamist force that would sweep the new Egypt’s first election. And while I agree with Lisa that a Muslim Brotherhood-led government will be deterrred by Israel’s power from starting a war with us, how can any democrat, liberal or leftist, not be feeling high anxiety over Egypt’s future and what it could mean for the Middle East? R.W. Al-Thahabi, a liberal Egyptian who was in Tahrir Square, writes that he “remain(s) quite worried.”

What’s more, how can an Israeli, even a liberal who supported the protesters and still supports the liberal movement, feel anything but foreboding? The new powers in Egypt hate my country unconditionally, occupation or no occupation. Many if not most if not all of them hate my religion, too.

I haven’t soured on Egypt; there are too many good, brave people there. But I am demoralized by the results of this election, and I believe that democratic leftists, given their political ideals and the depth of their support for the revolution, are at least distressed by it, too.

But they won’t admit it to themselves. If you don’t have the right to say something, best not to think it at all.