Translator’s Introduction: In the landscape of contemporary German journalism, Richard Herzinger stands out as probably the most eloquent and courageous advocate of what in America used to be called “the vital center,” that is, a liberalism opposed to all forms of totalitarianism of the right or the left, be they rooted in Europe or in what used to be called the third world. He is also in an honorable minority of German intellectuals who make the case for American leadership in world affairs and who prod their fellow Germans to assume more responsibility in world affairs than has become fashionable among the opinion-shaping elites in Europe. As the intellectual elites became increasingly critical of Israel, he has remained an informed and emphatic defender. He has turned his critical gaze on Islamism, on the Iranian regime and its drive for nuclear weapons, and on the threats they both pose to the West, a noun he is willing to use without irony or quotation marks. His ongoing assessment of German, European, and American foreign policy is, in my view, as acute as anything that appears in our major editorial and op-ed pages.
American readers who read German can read his many columns at his website, Freie Welt (Free World). We offer a translation of one of Herzinger’s recent columns, one that deals with the crisis in Egypt both because of its intrinsic value but also to introduce this important German journalist and intellectual to an English audience.
“Das arabische Elend” was published by Richard Herzinger in Die Welt in Berlin on August 17, 2013. The original essay can be read online here. Translation by Jeffrey Herf, August 21, 2013.
The Egyptian military has drowned the already weak hope for a transition to democracy in Egypt in blood. That during the storming of the Muslim Brotherhood’s protest camps, 600 people were killed and snipers fired at unarmed demonstrators cannot be justified by any state declared emergency. The military has thus shown that it is willing to unleash ruthless violence in order to sustain its power interests in ways almost reminiscent of the massacres of the Syrian regime.
However, anyone who wants to present the Muslim Brotherhood as an innocent victim of state violence fails to recognize the dimension of the danger that it represents. All over the country, Islamic storm troopers attack institutions of Coptic and other Christians as well as government institutions. For weeks, the Islamists—among whom during the dispersal of the protest camp, some attacked the soldiers and police with violence and lynch actions—had paralyzed public life. They firmly rejected every offer of dialogue with the transitional government led by the military and insisted on the maximum demand to reinstall the ousted President Morsi. Now they are apparently determined to create martyrs of the movement in order to be able to fervently continue their course of confrontation. The Muslim Brothers are sticking to their strategy that already led to their removal from power, namely, an effort of uncompromising absolutism intended to force Egyptian society to its will.
No one in the West should fall for the Brotherhood’s confession of belief in democracy, which it now claims to defend against “the putschists.” For the truth is that the Muslim Brothers’ understanding of democracy is nothing other than the total coordination (Gleichschaltung) of political and public life under the terms of its own monolithic and authoritarian interpretation of Islam. According to its ideology, the will of the people is only realized when it coincides with the will of God which the Brotherhood itself defines. In Gaza, one can study a miniature of how a divine state (Gottesstaat) looks when governed by the Brotherhood. For there, the Muslim Brotherhood rules, with terrorist despotism and arbitrariness. It may be because the great majority of Egyptian society recognizes this totalitarian threat and wants to avoid it at any price that the military, despite the recent bloodbath, retains a mandate for its actions from a majority of the populations.
That said, the Muslim Brotherhood is too strong to be crushed by naked force alone. It is ever more likely that Egypt will slide into a civil war or more probably into a failed statehood. Instead of being able to focus on the urgently needed improvements of Egypt’s catastrophic economic and social conditions, the military transitional government will have to turn to a long, stressful power struggle with the Muslim Brothers. The West can only look on helplessly at this downward spiral. As a result of its policy of non-intervention in Syria, the United States has almost completely lost its role as the power supposedly sustaining order in the Middle East. It is barely being taken seriously by the actors in the region.
While the Obama administration (along with the Europeans) has stood by passively watching the slaughter in Syria for two and a half years, it drastically misunderstood conditions in Egypt. It counted too long on coming to an arrangement with Morsi and a “moderate Islamism” in power, and it overlooked the potential for resistance that led to the popular uprising against the regime of the Muslim Brothers. The West’s response to the overthrow of the Islamist president has been contradictory. On the one hand, it advocated for the democratic rights of the Muslim Brothers, but on the other hand, it has not been able to take a clear stance against the military. As a result, the West is now hated on both sides of the Egyptian barricades. Even the pressure of the 1.3 billion dollars in annual military aid with which Washington wants to manage the generals in Cairo doesn’t seem to work. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are ready to step in as substitutes, if the United States cuts the funds to the Egyptian government.
Western rhetorical appeals to reject violence and to engage in dialogue will not be listened to on the Nile, as has been the case in Syria. The West now stands not only before the complete collapse and failure of its policy in the Middle East. In general, two and a half years after the euphemistically dubbed “Arab spring,” the balance of the Arab revolt looks devastating. As the cement roof of despotism in the Arab societies lifted, explosive ethnic, religious, and social conflicts broke out, but without the structures of civil society that could have directed them into more humane paths of resolution. In Syria, the murderous war continues and its metastases have reached Lebanon and Iraq, where sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shiites have again erupted and where al-Qaeda has again spread. Libya is destabilized by uncontrolled actions of armed militias, and Tunisia is moving towards a conflict between the governing Islamists and the secular opposition. The only thing that unites the Arab world is its far-reaching hatred against the archenemy Israel, which is always held responsible for its own failures.
As opaque as the situation in the Arab world is, violence and arbitrary power triumph there over rational compromise with depressing constancy. The Arab world has not developed any values beyond national and religious fanaticism on which it could base its social order. In the Middle East we are not witnessing a “democratic revolution” but rather the violent search for the foundations of a new social contract. That can last years, if not decades.