Egypt: Islamist Style of Governing Should Be Familiar to Americans

New York Times columnist David Brooks was rightly taken to task for his July 4th column about the current upheavals in Egypt. Writing about what happens when groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood assume the leadership of a nation, he makes sense at first.

Muslim Brotherhood

President Eisenhower meets with representatives of the Muslim Brothers.

Democracy, the argument goes, will eventually calm extremism. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood may come into office with radical beliefs, but then they have to fix potholes and worry about credit ratings and popular opinion. Governing will make them more moderate.

But, as is his tendency – such a master of column-craft of the column, such a perverse mind – he can’t help himself and writes:

It has become clear — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere — that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. … Islamists might be determined enough to run effective opposition movements and committed enough to provide street-level social services. But they lack the mental equipment to govern.

The fiendish deviousness of the 911 plot should have settled questions about the “mental equipment” of radical Islamists for all time. Also, Brooks should have swapped the offending phrase for the word “disposition” – it seems more in accord with the point he was making anyway. Instead, he proceeds to compound his offensiveness.

It’s no use lamenting Morsi’s bungling because incompetence is built into the intellectual DNA of radical Islam.

Then, just when you think he can’t go any lower, Brooks writes: “It’s not that Egypt” – by which he seems to mean the Muslim Brotherhood – “doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.”

Okay, we get it: radical Islamists suffer from “incompetence” and lack the “mental equipment” and “basic mental ingredients” to govern. Surely, in light of the Islamic world’s intellectual and cultural achievements over the centuries, an educated man such as Brooks isn’t suggesting that Arabs are an inferior race. But using a phrase like “the intellectual DNA” can’t help but sound like he’s invoking the specter of eugenics to make just that case.

To give the devil his due, Brooks makes one good point when he speaks about potholes and credit ratings. How exactly do Islamists intend to govern?

While I was reading Robert Dreyfuss’s Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Metropolitan Books, 2006) shortly after it was published, this passage jumped off the page. Regarding the infusion of oil money into the Arab world he writes (emphasis added):

From 1974 onward, the Islamic banking system served as the financial backbone of the Islamic right [which] had long made clear that it preferred capitalism to atheistic communism. None of the important Islamist movements, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Pakistan’s Islamic Group to the Shite fundamentalists in Iraq, preached social and economic justice. Instead, they opposed state ownership, and social welfare programs.

Actually, the Muslim Brotherhood runs its own social welfare programs, apart from the government. Meanwhile, a couple of months after Mohamed Morsi was elected president of Egypt in June 2012, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution wrote:

The broad strokes of what the Brotherhood wants are relatively straightforward. …The first and most obvious priority is economic recovery and its various constituent parts: boosting employment, reducing income inequality, and combating corruption.

But reversing “the economy’s downward trend” is “not just an end but a means.” To what? Hamid again.

If the Brotherhood manages to, then Egyptians will be more willing to tolerate controversial interventions in the social and moral sphere (something which Turkish Islamists came to learn over time).

Equally as detrimental to democracy

… the Brotherhood will use its growing role in the economy to bind Egyptians to it through interlocking patron-client relationships. In this sense, penetrating the state machinery, including in education and the media through the Ministry of Information, helps the Brotherhood with its long game; further cementing the organization’s role in public life.

Throw in cronyism on top of love money and a theocratic state. Who does that remind you of? Oh, Republicans.