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The Plunge: An Egyptian liberal's response to Derfner

No liberal can justify the extreme, gruesome violence perpetrated by the regime on unarmed demonstrators, in full view of the international media. The ends cannot justify the means.

By R.W. Al-Thahabi

Wounded Egyptian demonstrator, Cairo, 20 November 2011 (photo: Maggie Osama)

As a liberal, I understand much of the fears of Western and liberal commentators following the overwhelming victory of Islamists in the Egyptian Parliament. Even further, I share such fears. And even though it has been argued repeatedly that not every Egyptian who voted for the Islamists made their choice on the basis of ideology, but rather often for pragmatic and more worldly reasons, I remain quite worried.

Nevertheless, I was overtaken with shock and disbelief by a particular statement from Larry Derfner (who still remains to me a courageous and independent mind who has been willing to take unpopular opinions within Israel with regards to defending the Palestinian cause) when he said

I don’t regret siding with the protesters against Mubarak one bit; knowing what I knew then, I didn’t see that a democrat had any choice. But if I’d known then what I know today? I would have supported Mubarak.

For the purpose of this article, I will not discuss the three decades of economic corruption and mismanagement, violent sadistic repression, and socio-political decline that the Mubarak regime had inflicted upon Egypt, but I will assume that his regime remained an “acceptably successful” one throughout its time in power.

By the dawn of the February 2, 2011, many Egyptians and others were still undecided on whether or not they supported the (then) “uprising” that was taking place all over the country, and particularly in Tahrir. While some were under the influence of official media and the conspiracy theories it perpetuated, or were in fear of the country “falling into chaos” if Mubarak suddenly left power, others knew more clearly the nature of the “revolution” that was taking place, but were also afraid to support it fearing an Islamist undemocratic or even democratic takeover of the country following the possible end of the Mubarak regime. But by the time the orchestrated carnage of Camel Battle was ending, just hours after Mubarak nearly won the confrontation by promising a peaceful transitional phase and reiterating the right to peaceful protest, public opinion had begun an overwhelming shift. The shift, which was for many more anti-regime than necessarily pro-revolution, became even sharper as more and more people around the world and within Egypt watched the horrifying and gruesome images and videos of blood and death from that day and others, on television channels and (a short while later again) online.

The existential problem that faced many at the time was this: some supported this regime or took a neutral stance during the entire “uprising” up to that point because they felt that the regime has been, in totality, generally undertaking strong efforts to reform the country, whilst also keeping the Islamists at bay. But now, that regime was bluntly gassing, imprisoning, torturing and killing unbelievable scores of its own people, blatantly in front of  local and world media and public opinion, even right after it had just promised to peacefully steer the remainder of the protests, and it did all of that because the people stood up in demand of change. That same regime cut the entire country off the world by severing vital and often life-saving telecommunication, orchestrated the escape of thousands of prison inmates who could, and would, steal from, terrorize and kill the people, and ever more blatantly bombarded its citizens with increasingly absurd daily mind-insulting conspiracy theories and photoshopped imagery.

As a “democrat,” Mr. Derfner, if you and others were to support Mubarak despite everything that his regime was perpetuating, then you would be accepting the maxim “the end justifies the means,” and that would leave room for any end, any means, and anyone. It was the scores of people who said to themselves on February 3 that “we would rather our country fell into chaos, be overtaken by conspiracies, conspirators or hardline Islamists than accept any regime, no matter its intentions, to blatantly lie to, terrorize and murder its own citizens, whether in defense of modernity, own survival or whatever,” those were the people who largely decided the eventual fate of the revolution, by choosing the defense of what was “right” over what was “pragmatic.”

There are times when a human being isn’t certain if he is choosing between clear good and evil, or choosing the lesser of two evils. By that moment in time, however, the answer to either question was one: the regime could no longer be trusted or morally be allowed to remain in power, and that any “democrat” or principled human being had to take the plunge and deal with whatever it brought. I personally took that plunge during the revolution, risking my own life in the process, and many of us out there live in constant fear of its potential future outcomes. And yet I don’t regret it and would do it all over again if I had to.

R.W. Al-Thahabi is a pseudonym chosen by an Egyptian citizen who divides his time between Cairo and New York City.

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    1. Dear Mr. Al-Thahabi: Thank you very much for your generous words. The point you raise so eloquently about what it would have meant to support Mubarak is unimpeachable. It was made in brief by a couple of commenters to my post, and it led me to change my mind. Here’s the comment I made yesterday. Larry

      “Very good point, JG and Tom – no, I wouldn’t have sujpported Mubarak’s killers against the protesters. In fact, in the first couple of days of the protests, I was caught between my instinctive support for them and my fear of the Muslim Brotherhood waiting in the wings (I hadn’t heard of Nour yet), and what decided it for me was that I couldn’t take sides with a dictator’s thugs against people risking their lives for democracy. Which, as I said, I don’t regret for a second. When I say that if I’d known the outcome of the election I would have supported Mubarak, I don’t mean it literally, it really has no literal meaning because I obviously couldn’t have known then how the election would turn out. But let’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, fellas, I guess you’re right. Good work.”

      P.S. I’ll be writing more on Egypt on +972 tomorrow.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Carl

      Kudos to you Larry for reassessing your view, and thanks to Al-Thahabi for the clear article.

      Reply to Comment
    3. This post and its comments shows the best of +972. I am ever amazed at what this group has created.
      Al-Thahabi, You sound like Thomas Jefferson. And I am enough arrogant American to say that means a lot.

      Reply to Comment
    4. ya3cov

      Once again, Larry proves a Zionist is a Zionist is a Zionist.
      Larry, you are so irrelevant. Nobody oppressed by Zionism, whether that person be Egyptian, Palestinian or other, cares whether you consider yourself liberal, progressive, enlightened, or a fascist revisionist, you are still a supporter of ethnic oppression!

      Reply to Comment
    5. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, lets see what the Islamists do now that they are in charge.

      Reply to Comment
    6. ya3cov

      hopefully they will say that unless Israel lives up to all parts of the peace treaty they will be forced to cancel it.

      Reply to Comment
    7. AMIR.BK

      In the long run a war of aggression, or the cancellation of the peace treaties, by an Islamist Egypt can probably be extremely beneficial for the Zionist enterprise. This dynamic should be pretty obvious but hey, in the middle east pragmatism always comes second to pride. Have at it.

      Reply to Comment
    8. ya3cov

      who said anything about a war? they just shouldn’t have relations with Israel until it abides by the peace treaty. Egypt should give it a year to comply and then say since Israel lied to us, the peace treaty is void.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Richard Witty

      On democracy in Egypt,

      Please prove the worried ones wrong.

      Have orderly and regular subsequent elections, and vote for non-religious parties.

      Right now the balance is 40% the equivalent of Christian democrat parties in Europe, and 25% overtly theocratic.

      That is a dangerous status. The fascist movements in Europe in the 20’s and 30’s achieved their power similarly, Italy, Hungary, Germany.

      Sorry to invoke.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Lisa Goldman

      The peace treaty will not be cancelled. Anybody who speculates that it will be cancelled is badly informed about Egyptian politics and society. And anybody who wants it cancelled is just being silly. Certainly some aspects fo the Accord should be re-negotiated, and I suspect Israel & Egypt will downgrade top level relations for awhile. But cancel the peace treaty? That is not going to happen. It’s in no-one’s interest.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Mikesailor

      Richard and Larry: Couldn’t one offer the same prescription for Israel? The idea of a religio-ethnic domination of the political process without regard for the minority? Before condemnation, at least wait and see how this plays out. Unfortunately, if they proceed with a governing ethos akin to Israel’s, I fear nothing will come but trouble and strife. Does the label “Islamists” really mean anything? What is the difference between ‘Islamists’ and political parties like Likud, Ysrael Beiteneau or Shas? At least they start with a clean slate and haven’t shown themselves to be as despicable as the Israeli right-wing yet.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Richard Witty

      “Richard and Larry: Couldn’t one offer the same prescription for Israel?”

      I wasn’t sure exactly which question you were addressing.

      1. Religious parties in dominance, rather than primarily civilist.

      Important point. The way to make change is to support political parties in Israel. They do not have the limiting two-party state like the states and elsewhere. Third, fourth, fifth parties are significant. A third, fourth, fifth, sixth party can make inroads by organizing.

      Between Avram Burg’s commitment? and J14, there is the prospect of non-nationalist and non-religious formation of party platforms in Israel.

      2. That contrary to the statement “Its none of their business”, it is in fact both communities’ business what happens politically among their immediate neighbors.

      Israel fears that Egypt’s policy will revert to “they don’t really exist”, and never seek or achieve acceptance. They genuinely and legitimately fear Islamic invocations like the statement by the mufti associated with the PA a week ago.

      With confident universally applied statements from the various Muslim communities, of “we accept you, we just differ with your policies”, then there will be path for change.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Volodinjev

      @ya3cov “Once again, Larry proves a Zionist is a Zionist is a Zionist.”

      So Zionists are monolithic, but you’re a racist if you think so about Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims…?

      Reply to Comment
    14. Ya3ov

      Yup Zionists are monolithic in their fear of the Arab, whether it be demographic bombs or democratic rights.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Ya3cov

      And comparing a political ideology to a religious or ethnic group?! Naughty naughty.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Volodinjev

      @Ya3ov “Yup Zionists are monolithic in their fear of the Arab”

      If I dared to say something like this about those you champion … but go ahead, keep hiding behind your literalist objection to the comparison.

      “…whether it be demographic bombs or democratic rights.” Telling that you neglected to mention bombs of the non demographic kind. A Martian having you as the only source might think Israel’s enemies are fluffy bunnies or something.

      Reply to Comment
    17. moshe perets

      lisa it seems to me that u r the one who is un-informed about reallity in egypt. ofcourse no one will suddenly announce that the peace treatty is canceled just like that, but to say that creating a dinamic that will lead to the canceling of it is not on any bodies mind is amazingly clue-less… do u speak arabic?

      Reply to Comment
    18. James North

      Larry: I admire your work and I’m a fan of +972. I also respect that you listened to Mr. Al-Thahabi and revised your original view.
      What astonishes me is that a smart Israeli like you could have been at all surprised at the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong electoral showing. The Salafist vote was unexpectedly high, but people who know Egypt well have for decades pointed out that the Brotherhood’s reputation for personal probity, along with its volunteer health clinics and the like, meant it had strong popular support. I did an article 20 years ago in which I said the Brothers would be the largest single party if free elections were held in Egypt; I was just registering the opinions of Egyptians and others.
      The Western press has also ignored Mubarak’s ferocious repression against the Brothers,which included widespread torture and imprisonment, even though the organization has been nonviolent since the early 1970s.
      If the Brotherhood’s popular following did surprise someone like you, then I shudder to think how ill-informed most Israelis must be about their neighbors.

      Reply to Comment