Looking at what is happening in Egypt these days the following fable, slightly adjusted, comes to mind:
A frog and the scorpion, met one day on the bank of the River Nile, which they both wanted to cross. The frog offered to carry the scorpion over on his back provided the scorpion promised not to sting him. The scorpion agreed so long as the frog would promise not to drown him. They mutually agreed to the deal and started to cross the river. Half-way to the other bank the scorpion stung the frog with his venom. "Why did you do that?" gasped the frog, as it was dying. "Why?" replied the scorpion, "I couldn't help it. This is the Middle East."
It is a precarious situation and there is no way to know how the upheaval will end and who will emerge victorious in the end.
In a Washington Post op-ed, published on February 3, well-known businessman, financier, and philanthropist George Soros gave his view of the Egyptian turmoil, the subsequent American reaction and the role of Israel. In his piece he calls on Obama to 'get Egypt right' and notes that there are some signs of hope for an actual positive development of events that will lead to a democratic process in Egypt. Nobody knows what the future will hold and analysts and observers have to make do with informed guesses. But given what we do know it is necessary to point out, with all due respect and appreciation of a man who makes a difference in the world, that George Soros's take on Egypt is too simple, too hopeful. It is with regret to have to point this out because he is a true intellectual and thinker who takes into consideration the strongest counter arguments to his position. Not so in this op-ed.
The fears of adverse consequences regarding free elections are not that they will be held at all but that they will be rushed without having prepared the reemergence of a secular opposition, provided for minority rights, freedom of expression, movement, and assembly, an independent judiciary, a free press and so forth. If Mr. Soros had thought of the example of Gaza he would recall that democracy is more than holding elections. This, the notion that the spread of extremist politics must be avoided, and the other examples he cites, are not "the old conventional wisdom about the Middle East." These fears are based on historic precedent and it would be prudent not to dismiss them as obsolete.
Moreover, Mr. Soros claims that "[t]he Muslim Brotherhood's cooperation with Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate who is seeking to run for president, is a hopeful sign that it intends to play a constructive role in a democratic political system." Really? It is impossible not to think of the poor frog on the bank of the Nile. He fell for the guy who could not escape his true nature.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and MEMRI provided a great service by collecting what the Muslim Brotherhood is actually saying about the protests, their own mission and nature, on resistance and jihad. Let's all be clear: They say all these things knowing the Egyptian military is still the arbiter of which direction the upheaval will take. This group is not benign. They are serious about it when they say that their ideological version of "Islam is the solution." This is not "old conventional wisdom about the Middle East" but, sadly, 'conventional wisdom in the Middle East.'
Support for the Muslim Brotherhood is currently estimated at 20 percent. As has been pointed out, the secular democratic opposition in Egypt is weak and fractured at best after decades of persecution, any Islamist party commanding that much support has the country within grasp. The Muslim Brotherhood gives signs that it intends to play a constructive role in a democratic political system? If they do then we should not delude ourselves about their motives because 'sharia' is on their minds.
It should be added that poverty and lack of education provide a fertile soil for the seeds of radical Islamist groups in general and the Brotherhood in particular. The cases of Hezbollah in South Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip are as illustrative as they are frightening. A large part of Egypt's population, and I am sure Mr. Soros is aware of this, lives in poverty living on, less than $2 per day. Egypt dependent on foreign providers for nearly half its total food consumption and is the world's largest wheat importer. Over a third of the Egyptians are illiterate. Among women the rate is 45 percent.
This needs to be seen together with the sobering and important results of a Pew Global Attitudes Project poll on "Egypt, Democracy and Islam," which showed that about six-in-ten Egyptians were very (20%) or somewhat (41%) concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in their country. Is worrying about this worrying "old conventional wisdom?"
There is grave danger into rushing to elections without having prepared the groundwork for democracy and human rights. The Middle East is a neighborhood where the concept of freedom is not necessarily the reasoned self-determination with which we are familiar. It may mean the opposite, namely the submission to the Islamic state. It has been rightly pointed out that it is dangerous to elevate democratic forms over the nascent culture of liberty. Hamas in Gaza comes to mind. Let's tread carefully. The courageous demonstrators in Tahrir Square deserve a true democratic transformation of their society that cannot take place within months.
It has been suggested that views like the one expressed here considered Egyptians inferior and incapable of living under 'Western' democratic principles. Not so. The goal is to see democracy, yes, 'Western democracy, with checks and balances, a loyal opposition, minority rights, freedom of the press, etc. take root. Elections have to be learned. And if the Muslim Brotherhood adheres to these standards let them run. By all means.
George Soros' admirably works to "build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens." And the assistance of his foundations will be needed in Egypt. But it is paramount that not only President Barack Obama but also Mr. Soros get Egypt right.
One last word about Mr. Soros' surprising and unexplained assertion that "[t]he main stumbling block is Israel." Israel has an interest in seeing her 1979 peace treaty with Egypt preserved and all other signed agreements and contracts honored. Yes, the change is sudden and carries many risks. It is more than narrow self-interest that Israelis, who live in the Middle East and know the neighborhood, want to see the transformation in Egypt be done right. Nobody but the Muslim Brotherhood wants to deny Egyptians freedom and liberty. With Hezbollah and Hamas at Israel's doorstep the world should know better than have that unique opportunity to properly prepare for democracy in Egypt slip away. Let's not trust the scorpion.